The Public Defender Service Corp. is hoping a moratorium on civil matters will be expanded so it can assist the island's elderly population and hopefully help chip away at a wait list of about 500 senior residents needing legal services.

"We were mandated to provide legal services for both criminal and civil for indigent residents of Guam," said Public Defender Executive Director Stephen Hattori. "But because of the heavy caseload on the criminal side, our board issued a moratorium prohibiting us from doing civil matters and domestic matters."

The board is to meet July 28, Hattori said. 

There are limited civil matters the public defender can tackle. These are protective orders, restraining orders, guardianship and, more recently, probate cases involving war claims, according to Hattori. 

In partnership with Guam Legal Services Corp., the public defender believes it can help about 40 senior residents a month, or about 480 in a year.

The Division of Senior Citizens at the Department of Public Health and Social Services administers the Legal Assistance Services Program, which is intended to provide legal advice and representation to individuals 60 years or older. The program is funded through federal grants and the award for fiscal 2020 is about $192,000. 

According to the public defender's proposal to its board of trustees, the senior citizens division is proposing to sub-grant the LAS Program to the public defender office, which will operate the program as the Guam Elder Justice Center. 

The type of work to be done will be fundamental, according to Hattori. 

"(We can assist with) things like power of attorney," Hattori said. "We're going to be doing wills. We're going to help them with advance directives like living wills ... nothing complex and no litigation."

The Elder Justice Center will also be part of a pilot program for a civil division of the public defender office, according to the proposal. Grant funding will allow the corporation to hire an attorney and case manager. Another attorney will be shifted to the civil division. Guam Legal Services will also provide support. 

The net effect is that criminal case attorneys will have a smaller caseload as they will no longer tackle civil work. A conflict wall will also be erected to protect against conflicts of interest, Hattori said.

As an example of conflicts created by the current situation, protective order victims are sometimes turned away due to the public defender representing defendants in family violence cases, according to Hattori. 

"When we create a civil division ... we won't have to conflict out of as many protective order cases," he said.

The public defender office attempted run the elder justice program last year, and was working to secure a memorandum of understanding with the senior citizens division, but as indicated by an April 2019 letter from Hattori to the division administrator, the board did not lift the moratorium and the MOU was canceled. 

"We're basically trying to convince (the board) that it's going to save the court money in the long run because it's going to reduce conflicts for our criminal division. And it's going to help more victims in the long run because it's going to eliminate conflicts in our civil division," Hattori said. 

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