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Court commission examines legal help for poor in non-criminal ca - KPAX.com | Continuous News | Missoula & Western Montana

Montana court commission examines legal help for poor in non-criminal cases

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The Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission is holding public forums across the state. (MTN News file photo) The Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission is holding public forums across the state. (MTN News file photo)
HELENA -

Every day in Montana, someone faces a crisis that may need legal assistance – and many Montanans have no way to pay for that help.

“Thousands of Montanans who are at or below the poverty line have legal needs,” says Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker. “They have housing problems, health-care issues, that they can’t resolve, because they don’t have the wherewithal to do so.

“And when they have these issues, it has a cascading or snowballing effect and they end up in crisis.”

But Baker and others hope to put a dent in this problem in the coming year – and say the effort could help ease Montana’s clogged court system as well.

Baker chairs the Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission, which is holding public forums across the state on how best to provide civil legal assistance for low-income Montanans.

There are programs to help poor Montanans get legal help on civil matters, but they fall well short of the need, Baker says.

She says the commission is assessing the need and current resources in Montana, and likely will ask the 2017 Legislature to approve some form of state funding to help.

“We’re hoping to keep this effort going to try to bring everyone to the table to do their part, to make the system work better for all of us in our state,” Baker says.

The most common types of cases where people need help are family law (divorces, child support, parenting plans) housing problems and disputes on unpaid bills.  

The Montana Legal Services Association, which has offices in Billings, Helena and Missoula, has 15 staff attorneys and helped 7,000 people last year on 2,700 civil cases. It helps people earning up to 125% of the federal poverty level, or $20,000 for a family of two.

Yet MLSA’s budget has declined greatly in the past three decades and turns away thousands of cases every year, officials say. It gets a majority of its funds from the federal government – and no funds from the state.

The state Supreme Court also established the Court Help Program in 2008, which advises people on court procedure and filing forms, and may direct people to lawyers offering free or reduced-rate services.

The Court Help Program, however, does not provide direct legal help, and has a relatively small staff.

“What we need is more attorneys to provide pro bono (free) assistance,” says Patt Leikam of the Court Help office in Billings. “We need … additional funding for other self-help law centers.”

Baker says nearly 2,000 Montana attorneys are providing some free or reduced-price help.

“There are lots of community members doing their part,” she says. “But what we’re trying to do is coordinate, figure out who’s doing what, where we’re having successes and where the needs still aren’t being met.”

Helping low-income Montanans get legal assistance fulfills our fundamental “justice for all” principle, Baker says – but it also can make the court system function more efficiently.

Montana’s district courts had nearly 56,000 filed cases last year, and almost 80 percent are some type of civil action. Litigants who file without legal help tend to slow down an already overburdened system, she says.

“What we’re really trying to do is make our court system work effectively, for everyone … and make sure the courts are addressing the needs of our individuals and communities, so that people really are getting equal justice under the law,” she says.

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