On Monday, March 12, the Access to Justice Commission had the pleasure of meeting with the justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The Commission holds a joint meeting with the court each Spring in conjunction with the Commision’s annual meeting in Madison. The discussion covered a range of access to justice issues and projects in Wisconsin and nationally. The following Commission projects were covered and the Commission is grateful for all the helpful suggestions for additional resources and approaches that were provided:
- In state courts – A growing concern expressed by many trial court judges has been that the growth of self representation in the courts makes it challenging for judges to both maintain their traditional impartial role in the courtroom and ensure that the proceeding is fair. Our adversarial system of justice has grown around an assumption that both parties would be represented by attorneys who understand the rules and the law. The Commission has examined a number of possible possible updates to the Code of Judicial Conduct and other resources that would provide more assistance to judges on best practices for handling self-represented litigants in the courtroom. Additional guidance in for form of a revised rule, additional commentary in the rules, expanded judicial guidebooks and more training are likely recommendations.
- In tribal courts – The rate of people who are not represented by attorneys appears to be significantly higher in tribal courts but there is also a tradition of using non-lawyer tribal court advocates in those courts to assist litigants. Based on the findings from an informal survey of tribal court judges, the Commission is working with Wisconsin Judicare’s Indian Law Office on a proposal to the Wisconsin technical colleges that could lead to the development of enhanced training for tribal court advocates who play such a vital role in those courts.
- Mapping the system – Because the Commission is charged with taking a systemic view of equal access to justice for low income Wisconsin residents, a detailed mapping of civil legal needs and the resources available to meet those needs is also underway. The ultimate goal is to paint a more detailed picture of the state of access to justice in Wisconsin by integrating data from a variety of sources, including the Census, state and local government, bar associations, the courts as well as legal and social services providers. The information would be useful for planning purposes to providers, courts and funding organizations.
- Resource development – Increasing funding for the provision of civil legal services to Wisconsin residents who cannot afford legal assistance necessary to address important civil legal needs is a major priority for the Commission. In addition to seeking the restoration of public funding for civil legal services to the indigent, the Commission is also moving forward on developing supplemental funding options such as cy pres (the use of residual amounts left over in class action settlements to fund legal services), increasing the private fundraising capacity of legal services providers and pursuing innovative resources such as Americorps.
- Appointment of counsel – In response to concerns that have been expressed about the cost and scope of a proposed rule on the appointment of counsel in certain civil cases, the Commission is exploring the feasibility of an affordable but meaningful pilot program that could provide at least some of that missing information for the courts and policymakers. No decisions have been made on whether to proceed with such a project but the initial planning involves Commission members along with representatives from the court system and the Wisconsin Counties Association. Helpful assistance has been provided by the ABA Section of Litigation’s Civil Right to Counsel Fellow, John Polluck.
- Outreach – In the area of public outreach, the Commission has developed a compelling video and brochure as tools that will be used to highlight both the importance of providing equal access to justice for all and the difference that everyone can make in this effort.
Following the meeting with the justices, the Access to Justice Commission held also met and decided to move forward with hosting a series of regional hearings on the state of equal access to civil justice in Wisconsin. More information about the hearings will be provided as it becomes available.