Projects

The Commission is working on a range of projects to achieve its mission  to develop and encourage means of expanding access to the civil justice system for unrepresented low-income Wisconsin residents. We look for projects where we can make a difference to help Wisconsin achieve a statewide civil legal services delivery system that is comprehensive, integrated, efficient, accessible, effective, fair and just. You can review the Commission’s strategic plan here and we have outlined some of our projects below.

Preserving Federal Funding

The federal Legal Services Corporation is the largest single funding source for civil legal services to the indigent in Wisconsin. Fortunately, there seems to be bipartisan support in Congress for maintaining the critical source of support. But LSC is not immune from calls to reduce or even eliminate funding for the services it supports. The Commission shares in the responsibility for ensuring that Wisconsin’s legislative delegation understands that thousands of Wisconsin residents from the biggest cities to the smallest towns depend on access to LSC-funded civil legal services. We support efforts by the American Bar Association and the State Bar of Wisconsin to ensure that this key access to justice resource is

You can help too. Make sure that your members of Congress know where you stand on providing adequate funding for LSC. Visit our action page on PopVox to learn more and speak up.

Restoring State Funding

In 2011, Wisconsin became one of only four states in the country and the only state in the Midwest that provides no state funding for civil legal services to the indigent. Other Midwestern states budget an average of $7.6 million per year for indigent civil legal services. The impact has been disastrous for Wisconsin residents who can’t obtain the legal help they need and are unable to represent themselves when they face threats to their safety, housing, their children and more. The Commission has worked diligently with legislators, the State Bar of Wisconsin and other equal justice stakeholders to restore at least some targeted funding for civil legal services in Wisconsin. You can read more about those efforts here.

It will take a team effort from all stakeholders, including state government, to address this challenge.

Funding civil legal services for the poor is part of a public-private partnership to achieve justice, and financial support at all levels of government is essential.
It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect that private sources – foundations, other donors, attorney contributions, and volunteer lawyers – can, or should,
meet the entire support needs of the civil legal services system.
– Gregg Moore, President, Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission

What can you do?  Call, write or visit your elected representatives. Make sure that they know how much you value their support for civil legal services to the indigent. Click here to find out who represents you.

Expanding Private Funding

Our goal is to increase private foundation giving to civil legal assistance efforts in Wisconsin. The Commission has been meeting with a variety of private funding sources in Wisconsin to educate them about the linkage between access to civil legal assistance and a variety of the social issues that private foundations are seeking to address. Providing equal access to appropriate civil legal assistance can help private funders achieve their objectives to: reduce the impact of domestic violence, increase access to employment, prevent homelessness, expand health care coverage and much more. The Commission is working with the American Bar Association’s Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives and others to help bring together Natural Allies: civil legal services and Wisconsin’s private foundations.  

What can you do? Make sure that the family, community and United Way foundations in your area understand the connection between the availability of legal assistance and progress on the social problems that they are trying to address through grants. There is a great resource to help you do that. It’s a downloadable brochure from the Public Welfare and Kresge Foundations called Natural Allies. We’re using it in our outreach campaign to Wisconsin foundations. Do you have a foundation relationship that would help us in this outreach effort? Contact us. We’d like to hear about it.

Developing New Resources

The Commission developed a fact sheet on the voluntary use of cy pres to distribute residual funds left over in class action lawsuits to support civil legal services to the indigent in Wisconsin. Other states have well developed programs for the use of cy pres to support civil legal services either through educational outreach, by court rule or by statute (pdf). The Commission believes that Wisconsin can do more in this area and will continue to suggest improvements.

If you are involved in a class action case and are unable to distribute all the funds, consider designating a cy pres recipient as outlined in our fact sheet. When an award is distributed this way, you can rest assured the funds will be used in a manner consistent with the intent of the award. And you can make a significant difference in the lives of Wisconsin residents who desperately need access to civil legal assistance with issues related to safety, shelter, employment, health care and consumer protection.

Raising Public Awareness

As part of its outreach efforts, the Commission convened a series of six public hearings in communities across Wisconsin to gather and highlight information about the current state of access to justice. Hearings were held in Green Bay, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Madison, Wausau and La Crosse. At each hearing,  advocates for equal justice and members of the community had a chance to share with the Commission and community leaders  what they saw as the challenges and opportunities ahead. The Commission’s summary of the issues raised in the hearings and its recommendations are presented in its report, The State of Equal Justice in Wisconsin.

What can you do? Help us spread the word about what’s working and what’s not working with access to civil legal help for low-income and vulnerable Wisconsin residents. Members of the Commission and staff are available to speak at your events or to groups in your community about how you can get involved in supporting equal justice for all. We also have public outreach materials that you can incorporate into your planning and services.

Helping the Disabled
Rosa is a 45-year-old, single, Hispanic mother of two minor children. She has a ninth-grade education and her ability to read and write English is limited. When her health after several surgeries prevented her from performing her work, she lost her job, which led to foreclosure of her family home. Rosa applied for SSI disability benefits on her own but her original claim was denied. Her request for reconsideration was also denied. Rosa heard about the work of the Legal Aid Society and asked for help. A staff attorney represented her to appeal the SSI denials and won. Rosa was awarded social security disability benefits, plus a retroactive award dating back to her first surgery. In addition, the Legal Aid Society was able to obtain medical assistance benefits for her current and future medical care. With a stable income and health insurance, Rosa hopes to return to the work force when she recovers.

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“Torrance” is a deaf African American man with a wife and two young children. The family’s landlord filed an eviction action after the building went into foreclosure. A Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee. staff attorney Rachel Arfa, who is both profoundly deaf and fluent in American Sign Language, represented Torrance and his family. She obtained an interpreter under the Americans with Disabilities Act to assist Torrance in his court appearances. She also helped him assert his rights under the Federal Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, which resulted in the court granting Torrance and his family a 90-day extension of time to seek, and eventually find, acceptable new housing. Attorney Arfa then obtained a dismissal of the eviction proceeding to clear Torrance’s credit record.

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Ruth worked on a machine line for a manufacturing company for 23 years. She obtained the job as part of special education services she received for her intellectual disabilities during the transition from high school. As part of cut-backs, the company decided to test employees on their machines to have them, in essence, reapply for their jobs.
Ruth asked for reasonable accommodations in taking the test, including extra time and having someone read the questions to her and write down her answers. She was denied any accommodations, failed the test and was fired. Ruth’s cognitive disability left her unable to represent herself, so she and her family came to Disability Rights Wisconsin (DRW) for help.
DRW advised Ruth that she should file a complaint with Wisconsin’s Equal Rights Division. DRW then worked with Ruth and her family to prove her case. When the case was certified for a hearing by the Equal Rights Division, the company agreed to settle, providing Ruth with back pay of $9,000, and a favorable letter of reference.