HELENA – Attorneys, judges and others turned out Friday to support a nearly $1 million-a-year proposed fund to aid low-income Montanans with civil legal disputes, saying it will help unclog an overburdened court system.
“Many, many people are coming before our courts trying to navigate it on their own, because they can’t afford an attorney,” said Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker. “The courts are overwhelmed with high-priority cases and cases involving self-represented litigants.”
House Bill 182, sponsored by Rep. Ken Holmlund, R-Miles City, would increase court-filing fees to finance the new account administered by the Supreme Court.
The high court would set up a system to distribute the money to local programs providing legal counsel or “alternative dispute resolution” for low-income citizens involved in legal disputes, such as landlord-tenant disagreements or family law.
Bill Bronson, a Great Falls lawyer involved with a local law clinic that helps low-income litigants, told the House Judiciary Committee that the clinic has more demand than it can handle. Additional resources from within the state would be welcome, he said.
“Frankly, I would like to deal with a grant program in the state of Montana, with people that I know, with standards that are developed here in Montana with our particular needs, concerns and circumstances in mind,” Bronson said.
The House Judiciary Committee took no immediate action on the bill, which had its initial hearing Friday.
Baker, who chairs the high court’s Access to Justice Commission, said the bill is a product of several years of research and collaboration by the panel, whose members are from the Legislature, the judiciary, the business community and elsewhere.
On Thursday, Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath told the Legislature that state district courts had 58,000 new cases filed last year and lower courts, such as county and city courts, had 243,000 new cases.
The volume is causing delays, particularly in civil cases, that can stretch on for years, said attorneys who testified Friday for HB182.
Rose Scheid, a Helena attorney who said she also has worked in Michigan, said courts in that state move much faster than in Montana.
Cases that take months and years “result in people who are deeply unhappy with the legal system,” she said. “It increases that stressfulness and the suffocating feeling of having a part of your life unresolved, when that drags on for five years, because the judge’s docket is too full with criminal matters or urgent family matters to have your hearing heard.”
Scheid and others said a big part of the problem are citizens who can’t afford a lawyer and represent themselves. These litigants slow down the process and, more often, bring cases that shouldn’t even be in court, they said.
Jane Amdahl, a retired attorney representing AARP-Montana, said HB182 could solve both of these problems by helping provide legal advice to those who can’t afford it now.
“It will save courts’ time,” she said. “It will help many, many Montanans who are the poorest of our citizens but still deserve to have their rights upheld. And it will do so without raising taxes so much as a single penny.”
Baker said the measure and the assistance it will fund should help improve the justice system for everyone.
“Without an effective court system, there is no justice,” she said. “And our courthouses need to be open to everyone – not just to those who can afford lawyers.”