May 30, 2013 – It now appears all but certain that Wisconsin will retain the dubious distinction of being one of only four states with no appropriation for civil legal services in its state budget. The State Bar of Wisconsin has worked with the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission and other stakeholders to pursue a bipartisan approach to establish a program of targeted funding in a high priority area: legal assistance to abuse victims.
With the work of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee almost done and no bipartisan motion introduced, Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee) made one last attempt to add new funding for civil legal services and domestic violence programs during Wednesday’s Joint Finance Committee meeting on the court system’s budget, but his effort failed on a party line vote of 4-12.
Richards made two bids to provide over $1 million in annual funding for civil legal services to domestic violence victims. The money would have been appropriated to the Supreme Court's Director of State Courts and then paid to the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation, Inc. (WisTAF), to allocate the grants.
“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 Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission President Gregg Moore.
Moore and others involved in the fight for access to justice were hopeful that stakeholders would take a step in the right direction by focusing on victims because without state appropriated funds, Wisconsin remains one of four states that do not contribute to civil legal services.
The state of Texas made headlines yesterday over this very issue as Gov. Rick Perry made a bold move by signing a bipartisan bill, “the Chief Justice Pope Act” into law, which raises the cap on the amount that can flow into the statutory fund that supports civil legal services from $10 million to $50 million.
In Wisconsin, funding of civil justice programs has taken a beating over the last two years. Between 2010 and 2012 total funding fell 40 percent and Interest on Lawyers Trusts Accounts (IOLTA) declined by 80 percent from 2008 to 2012. Even though Wisconsin receives federal funding through the Legal Services Corporation, providers have not received any state dollars since 2011.
Access to justice program advocates maintain that the effect of losing state funding for civil legal services has immediate and dramatic. Significant staff layoffs and service cutbacks have occurred at legal services programs that already had to turn away a majority of the eligible clients who sought help.
State Bar of Wisconsin Pro Bono Coordinator Jeff Brown said Wisconsin lawyers have a great deal to be proud of, because without the $50 assessment paid to the Public Interest Legal Services Fund (PILSF) by lawyers and judges, non-federal funding for civil legal services would have all but disappeared.
The State Bar of Wisconsin and the Access to Justice Commission will continue their efforts to seek bipartisan support for funding for victims of abuse who are in need of legal assistance.