In a letter to the Joint Committee on Finance, the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission expressed its support for restoring funding in the state budget to support civil legal services to the poor and the disadvantaged. The proposed budget would eliminate all state funding (about $2.5 million) for civil legal services, affecting thousands of our neighbors who are poor, elderly, disabled, abused, homeless, or otherwise unable to obtain legal legal assistance.
Individuals and families who are illegally evicted, who are abused, who cannot obtain child support, or who are in foreclosure will be left to fend for themselves in a legal system that they cannot effectively navigate alone. Their unmet legal needs will not vanish if the funding to help them is eliminated. Instead, their problems will worsen or linger, court dockets will swell even further with unrepresented individuals, or their problems will need to be addressed in other, less efficient and more expensive ways.
As the State Bar of Wisconsin demonstrated in its report on the results from the Wisconsin Civil Legal Needs Study, current funding levels only meet a fraction of the legal needs of poor and working poor families in Wisconsin. So, the choice is not between a luxuriously funded program and a bare bones system. We already have a frayed and tattered legal services safety net with more gaps than net in some places. In the last biennium, Wisconsin moved forward towards closing the the justice gap when it began making a financial contribution towards supporting civil legal services.
No other stakeholder has proposed walking away from its responsibility to help support civil legal services in Wisconsin. Every year, volunteer lawyers contribute thousands of hours of their time “pro bono” to help those in need who cannot pay. The federal Legal Services Corporation, many United Ways, foundations and other generous individuals also make a contribution. Each Wisconsin lawyer and judge pays an annual $50 fee into the Public Interest Legal Services Fund to help support for civil legal services. Providing for equal justice is not a problem that can or should be solved by lawyers and charity alone. It takes a shared commitment from every stakeholder to provide sustained support for equal justice. The state of Wisconsin is one of those stakeholders.
Our civil justice system depends in part on public confidence that the system is accessible, fair and truly committed to equal justice for all without regard to income. A meaningful opportunity to obtain equal justice must be available and accessible to all. Restoring funding for civil legal services to the needy in the Wisconsin budget would be a good first step in that direction.