Recommendations on expanding legal aid in Montana released - KPAX.com | Continuous News | Missoula & Western Montana

Recommendations on expanding legal aid in Montana released

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The Montana Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission has spent several years working to expand opportunities for low- and moderate-income people to get legal help. Now it’s releasing its conclusions on how to make sure Montanans in need can receive that help.

The commission announced four major recommendations this week:

  • Making and publicizing a statewide list of legal resources for people in need.
  • Finding ways to link people with the programs or attorneys that can help with their specific legal problems.
  • Addressing the links between legal needs and other issues, like health, housing and employment.
  • Securing long-term funding to support legal aid services, from self-help programs for people who go to court to mediation and other ways of resolving issues outside of court.

The recommendations are based on more than a year of public testimony. The commission held seven listening sessions around the state to hear from attorneys, service providers and advocates.

About 182,000 Montanans live at or below the poverty line. One study found more than 30,000 low-income households in the state had civil law issues. But three-quarters of those problems weren’t addressed, because people didn’t have the means to hire an attorney.

Civil law can include everything from divorce and parenting plans to evictions and debt collection. Unlike in criminal cases, there’s no constitutional right to legal representation in civil matters.

The commission found certain groups faced special barriers to the civil legal system, including homeless people, Native Americans, minors without parents or guardians, non-English speakers, seniors, people with disabilities, and veterans.

The report also praised work by groups like the Montana Legal Services Association, which provides free legal assistance to low-income people. But it also noted limitations. MLSA has just 13 staff attorneys for the entire state, along with 400 volunteers working pro bono. Because of that, they were able to help only a third of the 7,000 people who sought their services.

Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker says the commission will work with other organizations and agencies to achieve some of its recommendations. It will bring others to the state legislature during the upcoming session. For example, commission members will ask lawmakers to increase some court fees to fund legal aid.

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