The elderly widow of a disabled veteran faces foreclosure when her survivor’s benefits are denied and she doesn’t know where to turn. A mother who was beaten so badly that she was in intensive care now faces the prospect of losing the injunction that protects her and her children from their abuser. A young man needs help clearing an erroneous judgment that threatens the driver’s license he needs to keep his job. After working for the same employer for 23 years, a man misses a day of work due to a flat tire, is fired, and then is denied unemployment benefits. A young man is illegally evicted and left homeless after he asks his landlord to pay him for the carpentry work he did on her apartment building. The next case the clerk calls is a contested divorce with minor children, but only one parent was lucky enough to find a lawyer, so the required documents have not been completed and the case must be postponed again.
Every day, people like these face serious legal issues and need legal assistance, but because they cannot afford to pay a private lawyer, they often must go it alone and hope for the best. That’s where pro bono lawyers and legal aid groups come in. This is the story of our civil legal aid system.
Wisconsin has made significant progress on a number of fronts to expand access to justice in the 16 years since Hannah Dugan wrote the article “Who’s Providing Legal Counsel to Wisconsin’s Poor.”1 There have been positive developments in funding, pro bono program development, service delivery, resources for self-represented litigants, court rules, language access, and more. There have also been some notable setbacks. These changes have come at the federal, state, and local levels. This article provides an overview of some of the major changes that have occurred and looks at some significant gaps that remain.
Measuring Access to Justice
At the national level, there have been attempts to develop common measures to assess how a particular state is doing on different aspects of the access to justice challenge. The Justice Index2 – from the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School – “scores and ranks the 50 states, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico on their adoption of selected best practices for ensuring access to justice, creating incentives for state officials to replicate those practices.” Now in its second year, the Justice Index looks at several factors to determine individual and composite scores for states. As the National Center for Access to Justiceput it:
org jbrown wisbar Jeff Brown, Harvard 1989, is manager of the State Bar Pro Bono Program, liaison to the Legal Assistance Committee, and staff for the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission. He can be reached by org jbrown wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6177.
“The Justice Index is an online resource that relies on findings, indicators, indexing and other data-analytics tools to help ensure that a person’s ability to protect and vindicate her rights in a state justice system does not depend on whether she can afford a lawyer, speak and understand English, or navigate the legal system without an accommodation due to a physical or mental disability.”
Wisconsin’s composite score3 puts it in 11th place overall on the Justice Index. But when one looks at the scores that make up the Justice Index, it’s clear that Wisconsin’s strong overall GPA masks a significant weakness. Wisconsin ranks:
- 10th in resources that the court system provides to self-represented litigants;4
- 13th in providing language access to court users with limited English proficiency;5
- 14th in court access for the disabled;6 and
- 39th in the number of legal aid lawyers available to serve the poor.7
Like any human endeavor, the Justice Index is not perfect. It is a snapshot in time that depends on the availability and reporting of accurate data. For example, the number of legal aid lawyers has not been updated to include lawyers at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee or Community Justice in Madison, which should move Wisconsin up slightly on the measure of access. The measure of access to lawyers also does not reflect the important role that pro bono and other legal professionals (for example, disability benefit specialists) play in providing access to justice. The index also cannot measure the suffering of a family that has to live in their car after an eviction or the joy of a child who is finally in a stable, caring, and safe home thanks to the efforts of a volunteer lawyer. But the index is a good-faith effort to measure some key aspects of the justice system, and it provides a common framework and a starting point for a review of how far Wisconsin has come since Dugan’s 2001 article.
Measuring the Need in Wisconsin
Bridging the Justice Gap. The State Bar of Wisconsin released Wisconsin’s first statewide civil legal needs study and report in March 2007.8 The report was based on an independent telephone survey of 1,122 randomly selected low-income Wisconsin households in urban and rural areas. The results showed that 45 percent of all households surveyed reported experiencing at least one civil legal problem in the preceding year. The level of need was highest among Milwaukee-area households (54 percent), minority households (59 percent), and households with children (64 percent). Most disturbingly, the survey also found that only 27 percent of those who had at least one legal problem received help from a lawyer in resolving their issue and “only 39 percent of those with a civil legal issue that involved a case in court or a formal hearing said they received a lawyer’s help for that problem, while 63 percent indicated that the other side had representation.”9 (Most legal aid organizations report they had to turn away at least one eligible client for every one that they served.)
The top five categories of legal needs that people identified were:
- public benefits (18 percent);
- consumer finance (18 percent);
- employment (10 percent);
- wills (8 percent); and
- family law (8 percent).
Based on the legal needs study, the report made a range of recommendations, including expanding funding for legal aid programs, more pro bono services, creation of an access to justice commission, and more self-help services.
Additional Studies. There have been other efforts to examine aspects of the civil legal needs of Wisconsin’s low-income residents. In 2013, the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission issued its report on the State of Equal Justice in Wisconsin10 following a series of public hearings in different regions of the state. The consistent message from public, and often very personal, testimony at hearings in Eau Claire, La Crosse, Madison, Milwaukee, and Wausau largely mirrored the State Bar’s 2007 findings. Demand for help with domestic violence, elder abuse, evictions, foreclosure, and family law issues was still far higher than the capacity to meet those needs without additional funding for staff and volunteers.
In 2016, Legal Action of Wisconsin (LAW) published the results of a needs assessment it conducted among low-income individuals in its service area, which covers Wisconsin’s 39 southern counties.11 Of the 325 people that LAW interviewed in person, 89 percent reported at least one problem. The categories in which the most problems were reported were:
- consumer (12 percent);
- housing (10 percent);
- driver licenses (9 percent);
- family (8 percent);
- health care (8 percent); and
- government benefits (6.9 percent).
Individuals also identified several very specific problems that they faced. While this study did not specifically ask people to identify “legal” problems, the problems identified have an obvious legal dimension. (See Figure 1.)
Legal Action of Wisconsin – Community Needs Assessment
Specific Problems Respondents Faced
||# of Times Problems Identified
||Discrimination in Jobs/Employment
||Access to Housing
||Identity Theft – Other Person Using Info.
||Access to Health Care
Who Qualifies for Civil Legal Aid
In general, if other eligibility requirements are met12, a person whose income is below 125 percent of the federal poverty level is eligible to receive free legal help from civil legal aid organizations in Wisconsin. That eligibility standard is still used by organizations funded by the federal Legal Services Corporation and the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation. The federal poverty level is adjusted annually, but for 2016 an income limit of 125 percent of the federal poverty level means no more than $14,850 for individuals, $20,025 for a family of two, and $30,375 for a family of four. In Wisconsin, almost 1 million people (17 percent of the population) live below 125 percent of the federal poverty level.13 Many people who earn only slightly more than these limits are also unable to afford the legal help that they need.
Assistance is also provided by legal aid programs that use a sliding-fee scale. Clients with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level will generally qualify for such reduced-cost services if a program exists in the client’s area.
Some federal programs may award grants for providing legal aid services to clients who meet different eligibility requirements, such as age (Older Americans Act), military service (Veterans Administration), and crime victim status (Victims of Crime Act, Violence Against Women Act).
The Legal Aid Delivery System
Merriam-Webster defines a system as “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.” That is a fairly accurate description of how a legal aid delivery system works. The system is complex, it has many related parts, and each part depends on the others. In Wisconsin, that system includes full-time staff lawyers, volunteer lawyers, paralegals, benefit specialists, and law librarians. Organizationally, it includes an incredible array of groups. There are nonprofit legal aid agencies that provide a wide range of services over a large geographic area, like Legal Action of Wisconsin (southern counties) and Wisconsin Judicare (northern counties). (See the accompanying sidebar, “Legal Aid Delivery System Participants,” for a list of some of these groups.)
Nonprofit and Specialized Service Providers. Other nonprofit agencies offer specialized legal and other services statewide, such as Disability Rights Wisconsin, ABC for Health, AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, and the Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources. Specialized services may also be provided in a particular area of the state, such as Kids Matter (Milwaukee County) or Legal Services for Immigrants at Catholic Charities of the Milwaukee Archdiocese (southeastern Wisconsin). There are also single-county legal aid societies such as the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, the Legal Aid Society of Door County, and the Portage County Legal Aid Society.
Basic Legal Information Providers. A growing number of groups play a vital role in ensuring that people have the basic legal information or advice they need. In this category, Wisconsin’s State Law Library, along with the law libraries in Dane and Milwaukee counties, play a vital role. In some cases, these law libraries are part of a wide range of other legal programs. The Milwaukee Justice Center, for example, is based in the courthouse, and brings together the law library with free legal programs that provide everything from information to representation. In Dane County, the law library is both a public information source and a vital part of coordinating a range of free legal clinics in the courthouse.
Reduced-fee Providers. The reduced-fee component of the legal aid delivery system has grown since 2000. Reduced-fee services are targeted at those clients who earn too much to qualify for free help but too little to afford full-cost representation. Three nonprofit law firms now work in this area. Centro Legal continues to offer both free and sliding-fee-scale representation to Milwaukee-area clients. It has been joined by the Civitas Law Group and the Lagmann law firm in Milwaukee. In the Dane County area, Community Justice was formed to offer affordable representation on a wide range of civil issues, including family, consumer, and housing. Other sliding-fee-scale law practices undoubtedly exist on a less formal basis across the state.
Services Provided by Nonlawyers. Not every part of the civil legal aid system involves service delivery by lawyers. For example, the disability and elder benefits specialists in the county Aging & Disability Resource Centers work with clients to help them understand their rights or benefits. If more complicated help is needed, the benefits specialists can call on the expertise of lawyers at groups like Disability Rights Wisconsin or the Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources. On issues of public benefits under federal or state law, direct client representation can also be provided by a range of people who are not lawyers, including advocacy specialists (Disability Rights Wisconsin), immigration paralegals (Jewish Social Services and Catholic Charities), and others. Law students who meet the requirements under SCR chapter 50 are also allowed to practice on a limited basis.
Encouraging Lawyers to Provide Pro Bono Service
Rule changes adopted by the Wisconsin Supreme Court played a major role in focusing the profession on the importance of pro bono service. The adoption of SCR 6.1 and SCR 6.5 in 2007 played a particularly large role in this change. With adoption of ABA Model Rule 6.1, the court set a higher aspirational goal for pro bono service (50 hours) and urged lawyers to focus their efforts on the provision of pro bono legal services to persons of limited means. SCR 6.5 also offered major support to expanding pro bono service by making it easier for lawyers in law firms to participate in free legal clinics without creating conflicts for other lawyers in their law firm. With the most recent changes to SCR chapter 31, Wisconsin lawyers can now earn CLE credit for pro bono service in qualified pro bono programs.14
The cooperative effort between the Milwaukee Bar Association, Milwaukee County, Marquette University Law School, and the court system led to the creation of the Milwaukee Justice Center, which houses self-help and pro bono projects organized by several pro bono providers, including the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic, Legal Action of Wisconsin, and the private bar. The program even offers a Mobile Legal Clinic in a shuttle bus that extends the reach of the Milwaukee Justice Center further into the community.
The State Bar increased its support for pro bono service in 2005 as part of its Pro Bono Initiative. Pro Bono Initiative grants provide a source of startup and expansion funding to pro bono projects such as the Community Immigration Law Clinic and the Student Expulsion Prevention Project. The State Bar also obtains professional liability insurance for lawyers volunteering in State Bar-sponsored pro bono projects. The Pro Bono Initiative also reimburses some of the out-of-pocket expenses that lawyers incur when handling pro bono cases.
To implement one of the recommendations in the Bridging the Justice Gap report, the State Bar, through its Lawyer Referral and Information Service, in 2008 developed its Modest Means Referral Program. The Modest Means program provides a lower-cost referral option for individuals who earn too much to qualify for free legal services but too little to pay regular lawyer fees.
Dozens of other pro bono efforts have launched in the last 15 years, from St. Croix and Bayfield to Kenosha, Brown, and Racine counties. Meanwhile, some of the earliest pro bono legal projects in the state continue to thrive, such as the free legal clinics organized by local bar associations in Eau Claire and La Crosse. In Portage and Door counties, two longstanding volunteer-run legal aid societies continue and are engaging a new generation of lawyers in their work.
The Access to Justice Commission launched the Pro Bono Honor Society15 to recognize lawyers who have provided at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services to benefit clients of limited means in the past year.
The newest effort to provide free pro bono legal help is the Wisconsin Free Legal Answers website,16 developed by the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission with support from the State Bar of Wisconsin, the State Bar’s Family Law Section, and the American Bar Association. It provides a way for lawyers to volunteer a small amount of their time to provide brief legal advice in response to questions that eligible clients submit through a secure website. The service how has more than 80 volunteers and has handled more than 500 questions since its launch in the fall of 2015.
Pro bono service by government and in-house counsel lawyers is also being encouraged. Recently, the Wisconsin State Public Defender became the first state agency to develop a written pro bono policy for its attorneys. Registered in-house counsel in Wisconsin can now perform more pro bono work following a recent change to SCR 10.03 that was requested by the State Bar and approved by the supreme court. And new legislation proposed by the Legislative Council at the recommendation of its Access to Civil Legal Services Study Committee will allow lawyers in district attorney offices to provide pro bono legal services at no fee to clients in matters that do not conflict with their official duties.
Funding Progress and Challenges
The picture on funding for civil legal aid to the poor in Wisconsin is mixed. The largest single funder of free civil legal aid services in Wisconsin is still the Legal Services Corporation (LSC).17 For 2016, the LSC provided slightly more than $5 million in funding to its two grantees, Legal Action of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Judicare.
Civil legal services funding in the state budget has been inconsistent, with funding oscillating, often dramatically, from year to year. After the most recent elimination of civil legal services funding from two successive state biennial budgets starting in 2011, Wisconsin’s staffed legal aid programs went through another significant contraction in their staffing and services. Limited funding was restored in the 2015-17 state budget to direct $1 million from the state’s federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant funding for civil legal aid to domestic violence victims. In his 2017-19 state budget, Gov. Walker has proposed continuing that funding.
In addition, there is the prospect of a new, more coordinated approach to including civil legal aid when allocating a portion of Wisconsin’s funding under the Violence Against Women Act and the Victims of Crime Act and other federal block grant programs. Two recently approved legislative proposals from the Legislative Council would encourage state agencies to allocate a portion of federal block grant funds to support civil legal aid and would create an interagency taskforce to evaluate and assist in this effort. The proposals were recommended by the Legislative Council Study Committee on Access to Civil Legal Services.
Within Wisconsin, another large source of funding is the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation (WisTAF).18 Originally created in 1986 to hold and disburse grants from income generated by lawyers’ trust accounts, WisTAF’s funding base has expanded considerably. In large part, this push to diversify WisTAF’s income sources was driven by historically low interest rates that reduced its income from interest on lawyers’ trust accounts from a high of almost $2 million in 2000 to $45,000 in 2016. When funding from the state budget appropriation process is available, that funding also flows through WisTAF.
Another major source of funding for civil legal aid is a supreme court rule change requiring all Wisconsin lawyers and judges to pay $50 annually into a Public Interest Legal Services Fund administered by WisTAF. Although the fee was very controversial, its impact has been substantial. It generates more than $900,000 each year and $9.5 million since 2005 to support legal services to the poor in Wisconsin, making it the largest in-state funding source for civil legal aid. WisTAF also receives roughly $80,000 per year from a portion of the fee that out-of-state lawyers pay when they seek admission to practice pro hac vice in Wisconsin.
It is too soon to assess the impact of the supreme court’s recent adoption of a rule change urged by the Access to Justice Commission that amended Wis. Stat. section 803.08to direct a portion of any unclaimed state class action settlement funds to WisTAF.19 Since most class actions are filed in federal court now, the rule serves as a model for our federal courts to follow. The benefits of such rules can be substantial. The most recent settlement between the federal government and Bank of America resulted in an award of $5.4 million to WisTAF to support foreclosure-related legal services and community redevelopment efforts.
Other federal grants are a major source of funding for legal services programs in Wisconsin. Funding from the Older Americans Act, the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and the Veterans Administration provide substantial sums for legal services to low-income people in Wisconsin. For example, for 2016, Wisconsin legal aid organizations received approximately $1.8 million in VAWA funding to provide legal assistance to domestic violence victims and at least $400,000 in VOCA funds to assist victims of human trafficking.
While Wisconsin does well on some aspects of funding for civil legal aid, particularly when it comes to finding other federal funding, it is the inconsistent and relatively low state funding that drives Wisconsin below the national average on overall financial support for civil legal aid. The latest data available from the American Bar Association’s Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives shows how Wisconsin compares to the national average on funding per poor person from various sources. In 2014, the national average was $32.16 per poor person versus $25.83 in Wisconsin. Since 2015, Wisconsin’s state budget appropriation brings the state from $0.0 to $0.70 per poor person on the measure of state funding provided. (See Figure 2.)
The Wisconsin Equal Justice Fund (EJF) is a private foundation that continues to raise private funds for Disability Rights Wisconsin, Legal Action of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Judicare. The EJF raises approximately $250,000 annually for these three organizations.
Creative efforts are underway to generate new revenue streams to support legal aid organizations’ efforts to provide services. ABC for Health contracts with hospitals to reduce one of their “pain points,” uncompensated care for underinsured and uninsured patients. By assisting people to obtain health insurance coverage, ABC for Health helps them get the care they need and hospitals get paid. ABC for Health also launched a for-profit subsidiary that uses a patented online tool called My Coverage Plan20 for health care providers to match patients with insurance coverage options to reduce uncompensated care.
Comparison of Funding Per Low-income Person from Various Sources
Support for Public Interest Law Practice
The decision to enter or stay in the field of public interest law can be difficult. In general, lawyers will make a significant financial sacrifice compared to other practice options if they choose to work in organizations that combat illegal discrimination, pollution, consumer fraud, child neglect, elder abuse, domestic violence, the denial of health care, or some other issue. According to Forbes, law students who borrow to finance their education can expect to owe $100,000 or more in student loans.21 Such work, however, can be extremely satisfying. (See the article “Profiles in Public Interest Law” at page 14.)
Several programs lessen the financial strain on newer lawyers and public interest lawyers in particular. Although not specific to public interest law, the creation in 2009 of federal income-based loan repayment plan options for federal student loans provided some relief. The federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program22 takes that a step further with more generous forgiveness terms. Other targeted programs are available, such as the LSC’s loan repayment assistance program23 for lawyers who work in LSC-funded organizations. In Wisconsin, both the U.W. Law School24 and the Marquette University Law School25 offer loan repayment assistance programs to their graduates. One state, South Dakota, has sought to target the rural access to justice gap by offering loan forgiveness to lawyers who locate in underserved communities.26
Resources for Self-represented Litigants
Fewer Wisconsin residents are hiring lawyers to represent them, but the reasons vary. Real median household incomes have fallen substantially in Wisconsin since 2000,27 while the percentage of people living in poverty grew from 8.9 percent in 2000 to 13.2 percent in 2012. So, fewer people have sufficient resources to hire a private lawyer at the average hourly rate of $229 per hour28 in Wisconsin. The growth of the internet and do-it-yourself culture have undoubtedly played some role in changing public expectations of what should be possible. The end result is that courts, lawyers, and legal processes designed for people with lawyers have been stressed.
Research from the National Center for State Courts has shown that a case with lawyers on both sides is now the exception, not the rule. The center found that 68 percent of civil cases nationally involve at least one unrepresented party.29 Unfortunately, we don’t have similar data on such cases in Wisconsin. The data is not tracked systematically. The National Center for State Courts has developed standardized definitions and counting rules30 for cases with self-represented litigants but adoption has been slow, with only nine states in the Justice Index reporting that they are tracking this information (California, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, New Mexico, Texas, and West Virginia).
The growth in self-represented litigants in courts has resulted in an expansion in the availability of official and unofficial self-help resources for the public. Wisconsin’s unified court system and standardized court forms are the envy of many other states. The court system also offers an interactive online forms assistant for some basic family law and small claims pleadings.31 Our State Law Library responds to thousands of public inquiries about legal resources by phone, email, and online.
The Wisconsin court system’s Language Access Plan32 has expanded access to justice for limited-English speakers who need to use the legal system. The pool of certified and qualified interpreters has grown and educational outreach to justice system stakeholders has increased dramatically.
Many counties now have free legal clinics that offer either free legal information or brief legal advice to the public. These clinics help thousands of individuals by answering legal questions and preparing the proper forms, thus making the legal system function more fairly and efficiently.
In the courtroom, the supreme court adopted revisions to Rule 60.04 in the Code of Judicial Conduct that were proposed by the Access to Justice Commission. The amendment offers additional guidance to judges on the appropriateness of making reasonable efforts to ensure that all litigants, including those who are self-represented, have a fair opportunity to present their cases. The comment to the rule also offers a partial list of steps that judges can take.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Turner v. Rogers,33 increased self-help services may even be constitutionally required in some civil cases when a self-represented litigant’s due process rights are at stake.34
The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s expanded support for limited-scope representation offers encouragement to lawyers willing to offer a more affordable option to clients.35 The creation of a formal process and court-approved forms for lawyers to enter and withdraw limited court appearances may be of particular interest to lawyers who want assurances that the court will respect the scope of their engagement with the client.
In Wisconsin, the challenge of adequate funding for civil legal services will continue. At the federal level, the Legal Services Corporation has a long history of bipartisan support in Congress, as do the VAWA and VOCA grant programs to the states. However, recent news reports36 suggest that even broadly supported programs cannot rest on their laurels. It’s in the area of state support for civil legal aid that Wisconsin is falling further behind. Nationally, the states provide on average 19 percent of the funding for civil legal aid. With strong leadership from their supreme courts, legislatures in states such as Texas, Washington, and Minnesota have come together to provide substantial financial support for legal aid to low-income people.
The challenge of doing more with less is often met with calls for using technology more extensively and effectively. Advances in technology are driving innovation in the access to justice field just as they are in the rest of the economy. Legal aid is not immune from the trend toward “uberization.” The Legal Services Corporation has even established a national grant competition focused solely on the self-help area, and states such as Michigan37 have developed impressive statewide self-help websites that bring together a range of resources to help members of the public understand legal issues and find the kind of help they want. A variety of technology platforms is being used to develop and deploy tools like A2JAuthor, Law Help Interactive, NeotaLogic, LawHelp.org, Openadvocate, and a range of tools for dealing with expungement issues.38
In New York, Blue Ridge Labs39 is an incubator for social entrepreneurs to bring innovative technology solutions closer to the communities being served. Participants design solutions that can help the public on a range of topics, including access to justice. One lawyer-entrepreneur used his time at Blue Ridge Labs to develop the JustFix.NYC40 mobile web application that empowers tenants to document and take action on substandard housing conditions on their own, in groups, or with lawyers.
Other innovators have developed open-source tools, including WriteClearly and ReadClearly, that can help content developers offer self-help materials that are more accessible to the public.41
Technology is driving innovation in service delivery. In Cook County, Ill., the CARPLS42 website combines call-center technology, enterprise-grade software, and a customer support methodology called knowledge-centered support to allow each of its staff of 20 lawyers and volunteers to handle approximately 3,000 telephone legal consultations per year. Constant process and technology innovations have allowed CARPLS to triple its service capacity while lowering its cost per consultation by 30 percent. In the area of immigration, advocates developed an online tool, Citizenshipworks,43 to guide people through the process of applying for U.S. citizenship.
In the area of pro bono service, technology is also having an impact through online tools such as JusticeServer, in Virginia, which allows volunteer lawyers to accept and work on pro bono cases from their own computers through a “portal” that acts as a limited window into a legal aid program’s case-management system.44
More than technology will be needed if we want to truly close the justice gap. It will take an “all of the above” strategy. Signs of innovation are evident across the country and in Wisconsin. The Chicago Bar Foundation’s Justice Entrepreneurs Project45 is training a new generation of community lawyers for underserved communities. California’s Justice Corps46 pioneered the use of courthouse navigators who are trained to assist the public with basic tasks in the courthouse. Kansas Legal Services now offers both LSC-funded free legal services to its lowest income clients and low-fee services for clients who would otherwise fall through the cracks in the delivery system. Milwaukee’s joint effort to expand employment opportunity by addressing the problem of driver’s license suspensions is another great example of innovation and collaboration.
Oregon47 and Illinois48 have implemented changes to their unclaimed property laws that direct the unclaimed funds in lawyers trust accounts toward funding legal aid to the poor. Other states have engaged the growing number of retiring lawyers by creating new pro bono emeritus membership status that encourages those lawyers to do solely pro bono work rather than drop their active bar membership.49
The appointment of counsel for individuals who are simply unable to advocate adequately for themselves in cases in which basic human needs are at stake is also something that needs to be explored. Finding a funding mechanism that is fair and acceptable to all stakeholders continues to hold back this option. But New York City just took the first step to fund legal representation for all low-income residents in eviction proceedings in that city.50
The First Rule of Holes Is to Stop Digging (aka “The Conclusion”)
We have (mostly) stopped digging ourselves into a deeper hole. Since Hannah Dugan’s 2001 article outlining the system of legal aid to Wisconsin’s poorest residents, as a state we have made significant progress. But a great deal remains to be done if we take the promise of “liberty and justice for all” seriously. You can help.
What can your city, county, court, law firm, or company do to expand the legal assistance options available to people in your area? If a legal services organization exists in your area, get connected with it as a volunteer or as a board member. Learn what you can about the unmet legal needs in your community from the people who are closest to the problem. If there isn’t a project that works on meeting those legal needs, perhaps you are the person to help organize the response. There is no one person or organization responsible for fixing the issues that still leave so many Wisconsin residents to the whims of chance when they seek legal help.
The moral arc of the universe may indeed bend toward justice but it is not inevitable. It will take a sustained, collaborative effort to maintain our course.
Legal Aid Delivery System Participants
A system can be defined as “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.” That is a fairly accurate description of how a legal aid delivery system works. The system is complex, it has many related parts, and each depends on the other. In Wisconsin, that system includes full-time staff lawyers, volunteer lawyers, paralegals, benefit specialists, and law librarians. Organizationally, it includes an incredible array of groups. Some of them are listed below.
Keep these groups in mind as referral sources for people you may encounter who need specialized services.
Nonprofit Legal Aid Agencies Serving a Large Geographic Area
Nonprofit Agencies Offering Specialized Legal and Other Services Statewide
Specialized Services in Particular Geographic Areas
Single-county Legal Aid Societies
Basic Legal Information Providers
A few nonprofit law firms now work in this area.
Services Provided by Nonlawyers
author thanks the Hon. Hannah Dugan for her
2001 foundational article “Who’s Providing
Legal Counsel to Wisconsin’s Poor.” The
author’s article builds on that earlier work.
Meet Our Contributors
What is your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge I face every year is in my head. I love to cycle. There is just something relaxing and almost meditative about being on my road bike for a long ride, spinning the cranks and watching the scenery go by. But I also like the challenge of a good, long hill.
Climbing hills on a bike takes planning and patience. If you aren’t physically prepared, if you attack it too soon, or if you go too fast, you will burn out before you reach the top. I know this, but there is something about riding up tough hills, especially with a group, that makes the challenge fun.
The toughest part usually comes when I’m a little past the halfway point on a big hill. That’s when my heart, lungs, and legs are all telling me that it’s time to stop. Slowly, the rest of the group starts to disappear. My thoughts transform: “This is crazy. Why am I doing this? I can’t do this. This isn’t fun anymore. There’s no shame in walking. I’m going to make it to that tree and then stop. I’m never going up a hill like this again.” Then, when I can see the top, or at least what I think is the top, something strange happens. Doubt is replaced by something that feels like anger. I just keep spinning and everything is quiet. Finally, I’m over the hill, all systems are collapsing, and the “I’m never doing that again” voice returns.
But then another strange thing happens. About halfway down the hill, I’m smiling again. This is the cycle of riding and climbing hills on a bike.
org jbrown wisbar Jeff Brown, State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison.
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1 Hannah Dugan, Who’s Providing Legal Counsel to Wisconsin’s Poor, 74 Wis. Law. 10 (May 2001).
2 Justice Index.
8 Bridging the Justice Gap (PDF).
9 Id. at app. 2, Wisconsin Civil Legal Needs Study Final Report, p. 14, Chart 6.
10 Wisconsin Equal Justice Commission.
11 2016 Needs Assessment.
12 Additional eligibility restrictions vary by funding source but may bar certain clients based on their status (for example, undocumented immigrants, prisoners) or their issue (for example, class actions, abortion, redistricting, fee-generating cases).
13 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates – Selected Characteristics of People at Specified Levels of Poverty in the Past 12 Months, https://factfinder.census.gov.
14 See Jeff Brown, “CLE Credit for Pro Bono Begins Jan. 1: One Credit for Every Five Hours,” WisBar InsideTrack, Nov. 16, 2016.
27 Real median income fell from $62,000 in 2000 to $55,425 in 2015.
28 State Bar of Wisconsin 2013 Economics of Law Practice report, p. 37.
35 Joe Forward, “Are You Ready? New Limited-Scope Representation Rules Take Effect in 2015,” WisBar InsideTrack, Nov. 5, 2014.
36 “Popular Domestic Programs Face Ax Under First Trump Budget,” New York Times, Feb. 17, 2017.
38 A2JAuthor; Law Help Interactive; NeotaLogic; LawHelp.org; Openadvocate; “Legal Aid With A Digital Twist,” New York Times, June 1, 2016.
41 https://openadvocate.org/writeclearly; https://openadvocate.org/readclearly.