May 22, 2013 - The stage is set for the state of Wisconsin to support an important expansion of access to justice in our state. For months, the State Bar of Wisconsin has worked with the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission and other stakeholders to support a targeted state appropriation for civil legal services to abuse victims in Wisconsin.
“We think that focusing on victims of abuse is a step in the right direction and is consistent with the testimony that the Commission heard at its regional access to justice hearings last fall,” said Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission President Gregg Moore. “There is reason to be optimistic that Wisconsin will return to the ranks of states where all of our equal justice stakeholders are making a real contribution towards ensuring equal justice under law for all Wisconsin residents.”
Jeff Brown is the pro bono coordinator with the State Bar of Wisconsin. He can be reached at org jbrown wisbar wisbar jbrown org, or by phone at (608) 250-6177.
A focus on abuse victims is reflected in some of the budget priorities set by Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature. It is also consistent with the State Bar’s policy position supporting civil legal services funding.
The costs of abuse are enormous for victims and the community. According to victims’ rights advocates, timely and appropriate legal assistance for abuse victims can mean the difference between a person who is able to start down the road to recovery and one who is more vulnerable to further abuse. When victims get the legal help that they need to protect their rights, communities incur fewer costs and our courts benefit from better prepared cases.
Like many states, Wisconsin had its budget difficulties during the recent recession. In 2011, all funding for civil legal services was cut from the state budget, and Wisconsin became one of only four states with no state appropriation or filing fee dedicated to funding civil legal services for low income and vulnerable residents. As demonstrated by data from the previous Wisconsin appropriation (pdf), for every $1 of state civil legal services funding, legal services providers have a track record of recovering more than $10 for their clients in the form of child support, maintenance federal benefits, security deposits and more.
The effect of losing state funding for civil legal services was immediate and dramatic. Significant staff layoffs and service cutbacks began at legal services programs that already had to turn away a majority of the eligible clients who sought help.
The Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation is the largest non-federal funding source for civil legal services in Wisconsin. Historically low interest rates have meant that WisTAF’s grants from the interest paid on lawyers trusts accounts (IOLTA) fell 80% between 2008 and 2012. The loss of the state appropriation compounded the problem. Between 2010 and 2012, the combined loss of the state appropriation and declining IOLTA income resulted in a drop of more than 60% in the funds WisTAF had available to support civil legal services. The availability of federal funding to several organizations through the Legal Services Corporation cushioned some of the blow, but total funding for civil legal services in Wisconsin still fell 40% between 2010 and 2012.
Wisconsin lawyers have a great deal to be proud of in terms of their role in supporting access to justice in Wisconsin. Without the $50 assessment paid to the Public Interest Legal Services Fund (PILSF) by Wisconsin lawyers and judges, non-federal funding for civil legal services representation in Wisconsin would have all but disappeared. That financial contribution is dwarfed by the free and reduced fee pro bono legal services that State Bar members also provide to people of limited means in Wisconsin.
“Civil legal services is a cost-effective way to help people resolve their legal problems early and avoiding higher costs later for medical expenses, public safety, public benefits and other social costs,” said Moore.