Vol. 80, No. 11, November 2007
by Richard J. Ricci
Attorney Robert Hagness, a sole practitioner in Mondovi, has practiced law for more than 30 years. While in private practice, he yearned to do more to satisfy his "social worker within." When the opportunity arose to contribute in a significant way to help low-income Wisconsin citizens, he jumped at it, even though he realized it would mean putting aside a significant portion of his private practice for a time.
In 2005, Wisconsin Judicare, under a grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation, asked Hagness to coordinate the development of a pilot project in Wisconsin's 10th Judicial District aimed at improving unrepresented residents' access to the court system.
Since beginning his duties in June 2005, Hagness has devoted 35 to 40 hours per week in the position, often navigating the 13,000 square miles that encompass the 10th Judicial District, which is comprised of 13 counties in northern Wisconsin.
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As project coordinator, Hagness meets with those who work in the courts _ judges, court commissioners, clerks, registers in probate, and other staff _ to share practices that have worked in other jurisdictions and to collaborate on developing uniform and improved rules and procedures to help unrepresented individuals navigate through the court system.
According to Hagness, "Helping people, particularly the poor, who have no choice and must represent themselves in court, helps us all _ lawyers, judges, clerks, the public. We all benefit when our court system provides everyone equal access to justice. No one `loses' when people gain respect and trust in our judicial system."
To make it possible for individuals to use Wisconsin's judicial system without the aid of an attorney, the project provides model forms and instructions for divorce and other family cases that are readily and easily available to the general public. The project also has standardized rules and procedures to improve the ease of court access for self-represented litigants and provides direct assistance and training to judges, family court commissioners, clerks of court, and court staff to help them meet the challenges of self-represented litigation. The project also developed and implemented a major public outreach effort to publicize program services and resources.
In evaluating the project, 10th Judicial District judges, court commissioners, clerks, and other staff deem the project to be a success. The methodology for this project is now being used in the other 20 counties of Judicare's 33-county service area and can be a model for the rest of Wisconsin of an effective court system response to deal with the increasing numbers of people who need to access the court system on their own.