Who Will Lead the Fight for Access to Justice?

Posted on Categories Judges & Judicial Process, Legal Practice, Poverty & Law, Pro Bono, Public, Wisconsin Law & Legal System, Wisconsin Supreme CourtLeave a comment» on Who Will Lead the Fight for Access to Justice?

Jess Dickinson was on a roll, his Southern delivery infused with force and emotion. The Constitution is meaningless unless it is effective, said the presiding justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court. It is time, he said with rising voice, for judges to “stand up” and help insure that poor people have equal access to the courts.

The audience noted its approval with a standing ovation, but that result was never in doubt. After all, the occasion was the Annual Meeting of State Access to Justice Chairs last Saturday in Jacksonville, a gathering of 168 lawyers, judges and state supreme court justices from over 40 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, all of whom have signed on to the cause of equal access. There was an understandable enthusiasm for the justice’s remarks.

And the audience included the Honorable Shirley Abrahamson, Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, making a rare but significant appearance at the meeting; significant because in Wisconsin, access to justice has not enjoyed the out-front leadership of the highest court as it has in many other states, including Justice Dickinson’s Mississippi.

The Wisconsin court, principally the Chief Justice, has been active in the cause of self-representation, striving to make the courts more user friendly to those who cannot afford a lawyer. The Court also approved changes to the rules of professional responsibility that paved the way for the expansion of brief advice clinics, and adopted a State Bar petition to create an Access to Justice Commission. The Chief Justice has led the way in promoting the study of limited representation, considered an essential step in addressing the problem of access to the courts.

Most significantly, the court approved the $50 annual assessment that goes to the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation’s Public Interest Legal Services Fund, providing much needed funds as IOLTA income fell. (One of the more bizarre events I’ve ever witnessed is the State Bar Board of Governors actually debating a proposal to sue the Court because of the assessment.)

But it would be a stretch to say that our Court has been out in front, leading the way on access to justice issues in Wisconsin. Continue reading “Who Will Lead the Fight for Access to Justice?”

The Pro Bono Oath

Posted on Categories Legal Practice, Marquette Law School, Poverty & Law, Pro Bono, Public, Wisconsin Law & Legal System3 Comments on The Pro Bono Oath

When the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined in February to grant the Civil Gideon petition and its proposed requirement that legal counsel be appointed for impoverished civil litigants, it instead noted a familiar fallback solution: pro bono initiatives. When Congress decided in 2011 to drastically cut funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which funds legal services providers such as Legal Action of Wisconsin, the message was similar: lawyers should do more pro bono.

When it comes to the issue of poor people and their legal problems, passing the buck to lawyers in private practice is par for the course. Those who have the greatest ability to affect the problem and acknowledge it as a societal issue always give it back to the lawyers.

So much for venting.

The fact is, more lawyers should do pro bono, and not because those with the money and power shift the attention to the profession. Lawyers should be involved in pro bono because we took an oath that said we would; because we are ethically obliged “to provide legal services to those unable to pay;” because with very few exceptions, no one else can represent the unrepresented poor; because the problem is overwhelming; because it is the right thing to do. Continue reading “The Pro Bono Oath”

Funding Civil Legal Aid

Posted on Categories Legal Practice, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Poverty & Law, Public, Wisconsin Law & Legal System5 Comments on Funding Civil Legal Aid

Alberta Darling had a lot on her plate in the late winter of 2011. As co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee in the Wisconsin Legislature, the 66-year-old senator from River Hills, described on her website as having “a passion for protecting, educating, and improving the lives of children,” was one of the chief stewards of Governor Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill, the legislation that would spark one of the fiercest protests in the history of Wisconsin, and in fact, force Senator Darling to face a recall election.

But if threats of protests and recalls and the prospect of voter dissatisfaction would not cause her to veer off course, it was not surprising that the promise and presence of $2.6 million in civil legal aid — money designated to help poor people with legal problems — was no deterrent. That the funding did not come from tax revenue but instead from a court surcharge was meaningless. That Wisconsin had been the second last state in the country to fund civil legal aid was irrelevant. The money disappeared.

Well not quite disappeared. In a twist that still rankles those who worked so hard to get that money into the budget, Senator Darling’s committee did not cut the funding from the budget, it gave the money to district attorneys. Continue reading “Funding Civil Legal Aid”

Equal Justice and the Poor

Posted on Categories Legal Practice, Poverty & Law, Pro Bono, Public1 Comment on Equal Justice and the Poor

Many years ago, I attended my first meeting as a newly-elected representative on our church’s parish council. I was enthused, energized. Then an older man, a veteran of the council, pulled me aside before the meeting started and gave me a warning. “Now you’re going to have your eyes opened, ” he said. “It’s a lot easier when you don’t know about all of the issues.” And, of course, he was right.

I had the same experience some time later when I became involved in the most pressing problem facing our legal system: the inability of poor people to afford legal representation for the important life-changing issues they face. I had been involved in pro bono from the day I was graduated from Marquette, handling divorces, landlord-tenant issues, even a capital punishment case in Texas. I enjoyed the rewarding nature of the work and appreciated the hands-on experience. The clients I represented seemed to appreciate having a lawyer.

But while I was helping individuals now and then, and feeling comfortable that I was doing some good, I was blissfully ignorant of the big picture issues and challenges that had the system in a chokehold — the lack of funding for legal service providers, the reluctance of lawyers to become involved in pro bono, the resistance of some to changes in the delivery of legal services to poor people, the lack of leadership from those in the best position to lead. My eyes were anything but open. Continue reading “Equal Justice and the Poor”