Feb. 23, 2017 – The Access to Civil Legal Services study committee has concluded its review of the civil justice system’s needs and the State Bar of Wisconsin would like to not only applaud their efforts, but also express sincere appreciation to all involved for their time and effort. Civil legal services are a vital component of the justice system, and access to representation should not only be available to those with means.
According to a 2006 survey by the State Bar of Wisconsin, up to 80% of poor households in Wisconsin that confront a legal need do so without representation. And because of limited resources, some legal aid organizations can help only around 20% of those who qualify.
The committee was tasked with reviewing the need for legal services by indigent civil litigants and identifying additional non-GPR sources of revenue to address the issue.
The result of its work—three potential bills and six recommendations—has been unanimously approved by the Joint Legislative Council.
- Under current law, full-time attorneys, deputy district attorneys, and assistant district attorneys are generally prohibited from engaging in the private practice of law, including working on pro bono civil legal cases. The draft legislation would allow them to provide those civil legal services for persons of limited economic means as long as that work doesn’t conflict with the interests of the district attorney’s office.
- The bill draft encourages, but does not require, the Departments of Administration, Health Services, Children and Families, Workforce Development, and Justice to allocate any federal block grant money they administer and that is intended to benefit low income or at-risk populations for civil legal aid. In the 2015-17 budget $1,000,000 (TANF Funding) was appropriated to organizations for civil legal services but specifically for domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and restraining orders or injunctions for at-risk individuals. Additionally, in 2015-16 $7.8 million dollars in federal funding was awarded competitively in Wisconsin for various victim-related legal services (VOCA funding).
- The proposed bill creates an Interagency Legal Aid Coordinating Council that is required to report annually to the Governor, Legislature, and Supreme Court. The purpose of the council is to evaluate how providing low income, at-risk populations with access to civil legal services would fit into, serve, or further missions, goals, or responsibilities of state agencies. Additionally, to evaluate the use or potential use of federal grant money used for civil legal services. The council would also be required to produce a one-time report on the economic impact of providing funding to improve access to civil legal services.
- The committee recommends that the Department of Veterans Affairs make space available at least once a month within the veterans homes the department operates for consultation between legal providers and veterans and that the DVA facilitate partnerships with county veterans service officers and legal aid providers.
- That counties implement or expand mediation in civil cases.
- That the Wisconsin Court System explore the types of cases and proceedings for which it provides standardized court forms and a guided form-filling assistant for self-represented litigants through the Courts website and explore the creation of additional electronic resources. Additionally, the committee is recommending the legislature provide funding to the Wisconsin Court System for those purposes in the 2017-19 biennial budget.
- That the Supreme Court and State Bar of Wisconsin continue to collaborate to expand opportunities for pro bono services and limited scope representation for low-income civil litigants. And the committee recommends adoption of emeritus pro bono practice rules that would waive some of the current licensing requirements for attorneys agreeing to limit their practice to volunteer service.
- That DOJ work with UW Law School to establish a legal program to address the needs of crime victims in Wisconsin.
- That the legislature explore expanding the categories of publicly employed attorneys who are authorized to provide pro bono civil services to low-income individuals.