Aug. 1, 2012 – The Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission
held the first of six regional hearings in Green Bay on July 24. Community members and advocates from throughout the region described the overwhelming civil legal needs facing low-income area residents who have no one to turn to for help when they face problems like domestic violence, foreclosure, evictions, child custody, special education, and disability benefits.
Witnesses included attorneys who volunteer their time to help at free legal clinics, staff from legal services organizations, parents, and social workers.
Representatives from Disability Rights Wisconsin, Legal Action of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Judicare described how demand for their services has surged at the same time that their funding has been dramatically reduced. The Wisconsin Legislature completely eliminated funding for civil legal services for the indigent from the state’s budget in 2011. Other Midwestern states budget an average of $7.6 million per year for civil legal services to the poor.
A volunteer attorney with the Winnebago County Free Legal Clinic summed up Wisconsin’s current approach of relying so heavily on volunteers to provide brief legal assistance at legal clinics as “putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.”
Attorney Howard Bichler (left), Judge Margaret Vergeront, and Fr. Bill Ribbens attend the hearing in Green Bay on July 24.
Speakers at the July 24 hearing in Green Bay provided compelling testimony about the impact of funding cuts and service reductions on low income clients in the Green Bay and Fox Valley areas.
Karen Roehl, managing attorney for Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Oshkosh office noted:
“We have more low-income persons in our service area that qualify for our services than ever before. We have clients that had never been poor before – were in the middle class, had never qualified for our services in the past – and now, usually due to loss of a good paying job they had for years, find themselves facing legal and economic issues they never thought they would ever have to face …”
Monica Murphy, staff attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin, gave additional details on the impact of funding cuts on services:
“In recent years we have seen a dramatic increase in the requests for our services. For example, in 2008 we provided 1:1 assistance to 3,779 people, in 2011 that number had jumped to 8,140. While the number of people seeking our assistance has jumped dramatically, the same cannot be said for our resources. In fact, in the last couple years we have seen large cuts to some of the grants we depend on to provide services. While we have tried to make do using reserves that we have had and adopting austerity measures, we are now facing the prospect of eliminating up to six positions in the upcoming fiscal year.”
Hearings are planned for Milwaukee (Sept. 13), Madison (Sept. 18), Wausau (Oct. 2) and La Crosse (Oct. 16). The second hearing was held in Eau Claire on July 31.
Attorneys, judges, and the public are all invited to attend and share their experiences, suggestions and insights. Written comments may also be sent to the commission by email or regular mail at P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.
The commission wants to know:
- Who is finding legal help?
- Who is falling through the cracks?
- What impact has finding, or not finding, legal help made in your life or the lives of the people you serve?
- What is Wisconsin doing well for low-income or vulnerable residents who need help with civil legal issues?
- What more should we all be doing?
- How are you helping to meet the civil legal needs of those who cannot help themselves?
The Access to Justice Commission’s develops and encourages means of expanding access to the civil justice system for unrepresented low-income Wisconsin residents. It was created in 2009 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court at the request of the State Bar of Wisconsin. Visit the Commission’s website for more information and updates.
Jeff Brown is the pro bono coordinator for the State Bar of Wisconsin.