March 9, 2011 – The recently introduced 2011-2013 biennial budget (Assembly Bill 40 and Senate Bill 27) includes a provision that would eliminate all state funding for civil legal needs. The State Bar of Wisconsin has long advocated for adequate state funding to provide assistance for civil legal services to those in need.
The State Bar Access to Justice Study Committee completed a study in March 2007 (Bridging the Justice Gap: Wisconsin’s Unmet Legal Needs) demonstrated that more 80 percent of poor households confront legal issues on their own without legal assistance.
The State Bar, along with other stakeholders, has successfully worked to increase state funding for indigent legal needs over the last two budget cycles. In the 2009-2011 budget then-Governor Jim Doyle and the Legislature increased funding by a total of $4.63 million during the two-year biennium. The funding was then appropriated to Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation, Inc. (WisTAF), which dispersed the money received as grants to programs that provide civil legal services to indigent persons.
The $4.63 million was generated through a dedicated $4 increase to the justice information system surcharge. This surcharge is generally assessed with a court fee at the commencement or filing of certain court proceedings, including civil, small claims, forfeiture, wage earner, or garnishment actions, an appeal from municipal court, third party complaint in a civil action, or for filing a counterclaim or cross complaint in a small claims action. Governor Walker’s proposal would keep in place the $4 increase, but reallocate the funding to other areas.
The removal of this funding again will rank Wisconsin behind many of our neighboring states. In 2007, Wisconsin was the only Midwestern state that provided no funding for civil legal needs and further studies show more than 30 states provided at least $1 million in funding for general civil legal services.
The elimination of civil legal needs funding, along with the proposed federal reduction of Legal Services Funding, could further burden our court system as the number of individuals representing themselves increases.
The State Bar will continue support initiatives that will direct more resources toward access to justice for Wisconsin’s neediest residents. In June of 2009, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, at the request of the State Bar of Wisconsin, ordered a new rule directing the creation of an Access to Justice Commission to oversee moderate- and low-income people’s access to civil justice.
The commission was formed as a non-stock, non-profit corporation within Section 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code similar to WisTAF. Financial and staffing support for the commission is provided by the State Bar, which has set aside up to $300,000 for at least the first three years of the commission’s operation.
Gov. Walker’s proposed budget is currently being reviewed by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. It is anticipated that the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee will begin statewide public hearings on the budget in early April with voting to being soon after. Legislative leaders have indicated that their goal is review and vote on the $59 billion budget before the start of the next fiscal cycle of July 1, 2011.
The State Bar Government Relations Department will follow all the developments on this issue and other state budget provisions. Please monitor WisBar.org and visit the State Bar’s Government Relations page for updated information. For more information on other provisions that the State Bar is interested in please read the following story: State Bar responds to Governor Walker’s proposed state budget.
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