Access to legal representation is something most people take for granted. They assume they have a constitutional “right to an attorney.” But that is only true for criminal matters, leaving many Wisconsin citizens struggling to find legal representation for housing, employment, and family matters in civil court. Civil legal aid funding helps ensure fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have. Without legal assistance, thousands of Wisconsin families face a very real barrier to accessing justice. They fall into the "justice gap."
Not only does support for civil legal aid funding support eligible individuals and families, but resolving civil legal issues also has a far reaching impact on the judicial system as a whole. When individuals have legal representation or recieve proper legal advice about their rights or legal processes, it increases courtroom efficiency, reduces court crowding, and improves public confidence in our system of fair and impartial justice.
Investing in civil legal aid also avoids higher costs later. It means fewer emergency room visits, shelter stays, and police calls for domestic abuse victims. It means increased child support payments that reduce the need for public benefits. Removing barriers to employment increases job readiness and reduces unemployment claims, leading to higher tax revenue and greater self-sufficiency. Children in safe, stable families and homes can focus on learning.
Public funding from federal, state, and local governments has a key role to play in helping to remove barriers to access to justice and reinforces the private investments made by Wisconsin attorneys, local foundations, and individuals. At the federal level, funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) provides the largest single source of funding for civil legal aid programs in Wisconsin. It allows our two Wisconsin LSC grantees to serve over 10,000 low-income clients each year. Other federal agencies that provide key sources of funding for civil legal aid include the Justice Department, HUD, and the VA. Together, these funds help eligible individuals and families solve civil legal problems that help them stabilize their families, maintain safe housing, and get and keep gainful employment.
In the last three biennial state budgets, the Wisconsin legislature has allocated $1 million in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funds for legal services to TANF-eligible survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Those funds allowed 853 crime victims in 56 counties to receive the legal help they needed in 2017-2019. Civil legal aid is a wise investment for Wisconsin: for every $1 invested, Wisconsin’s civil legal aid providers obtain $10 for their low-income clients in the form of child support, security deposits, jobs obtained, and more.
The State Bar of Wisconsin, a professional association of more than 24,000 members statewide, supports funding for civil legal assistance to low-income individuals, providing them access to the legal system to improve economic success and stability.
Civil legal aid has long enjoyed broad bipartisan support for a reason: Wisconsinites believe equal justice under the law is a right, not a privilege. It helps people of all backgrounds and ages, saving taxpayers money while ensuring equal access to justice for all.
What You Can Do: State Bar of Wisconsin Advocacy Network
State Bar members are encouraged to send a message to their lawmakers expressing support on legislative topics which positively affect the legal system using the Advocacy Network. The pre-written email message is editable to suit your own thoughts and opinions, and will help to demonstrate the breadth of support for policies that prioritize access to justice.
You can also subscribe to the Rotunda Report and follow us on Twitter to stay informed and get involved in the legislative process.
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