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    President's Message

    In considering the WisTAF petition, the Board of Governors determined that each lawyer should decide how to be a part of the solution of providing legal services to indigent people. Thus, the board encourages lawyers to consider making a voluntary - not mandatory - contribution to WisTAF.

    Michelle Behnke

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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 77, No. 12, December 2004

    Part of the Solution

    In considering the WisTAF petition, the Board of Governors determined that each lawyer should decide how to be a part of the solution of providing legal services to indigent people. Thus, the board encourages lawyers to consider making a voluntary - not mandatory - contribution to WisTAF.

    by Michelle A. Behnke

    Michelle BehnkeWhen I first read the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation (WisTAF) petition proposing that the supreme court assess each lawyer $50 per year to fund civil legal services to the poor, I was disturbed by its accusatory tone against lawyers and their failure to give. The lawyers I know give to multiple organizations and give generously. While it is true that not all of their giving is for the benefit of providing legal services to the indigent, many do give generously to a number of charitable organizations benefiting their respective communities. The WisTAF petition cited the fundraising efforts of the Equal Justice Foundation (EJF) - $1.2 million total with $330,000 from law firms, $250,000 from corporations and foundations, and $600,000 from individual lawyers - as proof of lawyers' failure to give.

    The EJF campaign is but one of the myriad ways lawyers can support legal services for indigent people. The number of lawyers who contribute to and the amount of money raised by the EJF does not equate to the number of lawyers who make charitable contributions for the benefit of legal services, nor does this number take into account the number of lawyers who provide direct pro bono legal services.

    The WisTAF petition also cites the number of people being turned away from legal services corporations as evidence of lawyers' failure to address the legal needs of the indigent. While the existence and needs of the indigent are certainly not in question, I respectfully suggest that lawyer giving or "failure" to give is not the only factor in the number of people being turned away from legal services corporations. Over the last several years, federal funding has been drastically cut and then modestly increased to a level far below the previous levels. The modest ($100,000) temporary assistance to needy families (TANF) funds provided by the state of Wisconsin were cut from the budget and are not likely to be restored.

    That said, the fact remains that for the indigent, justice is perceived as a fancy ideal, attainable only by people who can afford the lawyers in the high-rise buildings. With no real and readily available representation there is no access to the judicial system.

    With this backdrop, the State Bar Board of Governors considered the WisTAF petition at its November meeting. As a separate entity, created by Chapter 13 of the Supreme Court Rules, WisTAF has petitioned the supreme court to impose an annual mandatory assessment of $50 on each active lawyer in order to replenish its severely diminished fund. The board's debate was not simply whether to support or oppose the petition; rather, there was real discussion about the underlying issue of access to justice and adequate funding. Without exception, governors acknowledged the unmet needs of the indigent. Governors acknowledged that representation is important in gaining access to the system and hence access to justice. However, governors also understood that contributions by lawyers alone will not solve the entire problem and that placing a mandatory assessment on lawyers perhaps will cause nonlawyers to see this as only a lawyers' problem.

    Ultimately, the board determined that lawyers should be a part of the solution but also that each of us should determine how to be a part of the solution. The board voted to support an effort to encourage lawyers to make a voluntary contribution of at least $50 to WisTAF by way of the State Bar dues statement.

    The board recognized that many lawyers already contribute, in a variety of ways. Some lawyers take public defender cases or guardian ad litem appointments at reimbursement rates that scarcely pay for the paper used in the representation. Some lawyers provide pro bono legal services in their communities or through the State Bar pro bono program. If you are taking these appointments, taking pro bono cases, or making direct contributions to organizations of your choosing that provide legal services, you may not feel the need to make an additional contribution by way of the dues statement. However, if you want to make the contribution, the dues statement will make it easy for you to do so. I encourage you to consider this contribution as a way to be a part of the solution.

    The legal needs of indigent people will most likely outpace even the most generous giving by lawyers, whether voluntary or mandatory. Funds given to WisTAF will be only a partial solution, but some progress is better than none. Now that the Board of Governors has developed its position, we will present the position to the supreme court and await the court's decision.




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