There are an estimated 150,000 Montanans living at or below the poverty line, and when legal issues arise for those people, it’s not always easy for them to navigate the justice system.
That’s why the Montana Supreme Court created the Access To Justice Commission.
The commission has been working for several years to expand opportunities for low- and moderate-income Montanans to get legal assistance.
The commission hosted a forum on Wednesday at Helena College, where a panel that included judges, lawmakers, and other civic leaders heard from advocates and groups that work with people in need of legal help.
“We were asked recently, ‘Do clients get what they need?’ and the answer is no,” said Melinda Reed, executive director of Helena’s Friendship Center shelter.
The biggest gap is in civil law – everything from divorce and parenting plans to evictions and debt collection.
“These are needs that affect people’s basic human existence: shelter, safety, food, housing,” said Montana Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker, a member of the Access to Justice Commission.
One study commissioned by the Montana Legal Services Association found 33,000 low-income households in the state had at least one civil law need. But more than three-quarters of those problems went unaddressed because people didn’t have the means to hire an attorney.
There’s a constitutional guarantee of legal representation for people involved in criminal cases, but that doesn’t apply in civil disputes.
“One of the things I explain to people is that often, getting an attorney in a civil case is like winning the lottery,” said Alison Paul, executive director of the Montana Legal Services Association.
MLSA provides free legal services to low-income people, but they have just 13 staff attorneys for the entire state. Along with 400 volunteers working pro bono, they had to handle more than 2,700 cases in 2015. An equal number of clients had to be turned away.
Short-staffing is a common concern among groups that offer civil legal help.
“We are increasingly providing legal advocacy, and unfortunately, as of about a month ago, we no longer have a dedicated legal advocate,” said Reed.
“At any given time, I have between 50 and 80 cases,” said Katy Lovell, assistant legal developer for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ Aging Services Bureau. “We only have one attorney and two paralegals that work on those, so it’s kind of overwhelming sometimes.”
Baker says one of the commission’s top goals is finding a more consistent source of funding for legal aid. Many of the groups currently rely on grant money to provide expanded services.
There have been positive steps toward expanding legal access. For example, the Montana Supreme Court operates the Court Help Program, a free service to help people handle basic legal concerns themselves.
“Some people can get their issues resolved without the help of a lawyer, but sometimes they still need just someone to walk through the forms with them,” said Baker.
This was the seventh and final Access to Justice Forum, after events in Kalispell, Great Falls, Billings, Missoula, Bozeman and Butte. The commission will take what it heard forward as it works on recommendations for how to fund expanded access to civil legal help. Next year, those recommendations will be brought before the state legislature.
“I’m inspired by listening to the stories of people in our communities, about how people are working together and so hard already to try to help their communities,” Baker said. “I think that every one of us shares that mission, and with that shared mission, I am optimistic that we’ll find solutions.”