April 10, 2013 – The State Bar of Wisconsin, along with the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission, is asking the Joint Committee on Finance to reinstate funding for civil legal services in the biennial budget.
Joint Finance is holding public hearings across the state to receive feedback on the newly introduced state budget. Two hearings have already occurred, one in Greendale and another in Green Bay. Two more are scheduled to take place over the next two weeks.
Attorney Marsha Mansfield, a member of the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission, testified at the hearing in Greendale, using her two minute time allotment to advocate for increased civil services funding.
The Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission was established by the Wisconsin Supreme Court at the request of the State Bar to “aid the courts in improving the administration of justice by supporting civil legal services to those who cannot afford them.”
Mansfield pointed out that Wisconsin is only 1 of 4 states that does not fund civil legal services for its neediest citizens.
Following is an excerpt from Mansfield’s testimony from the April 4 public hearing.
There are three points that I want to make today:
1. ATJ is fundamental to us as citizens of the State of Wisconsin;
2. Funding civil legal services helps people and saves lives all across the state;
3. Funding civil legal services has tangible economic benefits for every citizen of our state.
Let me tell you one story about how a modest amount of legal assistance can change a person’s life. I supervise students in a family law clinic. We assist people who cannot otherwise afford lawyers to represent them in their family law matters, which are often the most economically devastating cases impacting our citizens. We were approached by a disabled veteran who was involved in a divorce. His wife was represented by an attorney and they were trying to get every advantage that they could. He was forced to access a food pantry at time just to make ends meet. Through our representation he was able to keep the house that he had called home for 20 years and we negotiated a reasonable settlement that will allow him to continue living there with the assistance that he needs.
Or consider the domestic violence victim who is in danger of losing her job because her husband continues to harass her at work, despite the existence of an injunction and who is fighting her for custody of their children. Not only did our representation help this person remain employed and in the home, but her children will grow up in a supportive and loving environment, free of the violence that they were witnessing in their young lives. There are countless victims of domestic violence in Wisconsin who, with the assistance of legal advocates and lawyers, are able to obtain injunctions against their abusers, support for their children, and most importantly, break the circle of abuse.
A study by economists at Colgate University and the University of Arkansas has shown that the availability of legal services decreases the likelihood that women will be battered. The study notes that while shelters, hotlines and counseling are vitally important crisis-intervention services, it is legal services that offer women certain important alternatives to the abusive relationships. The economists theorize that by helping domestic violence survivors obtain protective orders, custody of their children, child support and sometimes public assistance, legal services programs help these victims achieve physical safety and financial security and thus to leave their abusers. Because legal services help women achieve self-sufficiency, they are a good place to spend public money.
We also have statistics that document the economic benefit of civil legal services for Wisconsin’s citizens. As the Civil Legal Services Fact Sheet that I have provided to you points out, for every $1 of state civil legal services appropriate funding, Wisconsin’s civil legal services providers have recovered over $10 for their clients. Other states, such as Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, and New York, have actually engaged in an economic analysis of the financial benefit of investing in civil legal services. In every one of these states, the economic return to the state is impressive.
For these reasons, I ask that you make a relatively modest investment of money, which was $3 million in the last budget cycle in order to yield economic, health and emotional benefits, both measurable and immeasurable for the citizens of our state.
Mansfield is a clinical professor and director of the Economic Justice Institute at the University of Wisconsin Law School. She is an active member of the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission and the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Family Law and Public Interest sections.