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Milwaukee and Madison speakers highlight the fraying legal safety net for the poor

Jefferson County Judge Bill Hue

On September 13 in Milwaukee and then again on September 18 in Madison, local community members, judges, lawyers, social services agencies and others gathered to share their experiences in providing or finding civil legal assistance for low income people in Wisconsin.

The Access to Justice Commission is entering the home stretch for its series of regional access to justice hearings. The hearings began on July 24 in Green Bay and continued in Eau Claire on July 31. September’s hearings were in Milwaukee and Madison. The next hearings will be held in Wausau (October 2) and La Crosse (October 16).

Some common themes have already emerged from the testimony. The scale and complexity of the challenges we face in providing equal justice to all without regard to income is daunting. There are signs of hope and good ideas for how to move forward can be found in many places.

Clearly, the elimination of state funding for civil legal services to the indigent is widening the justice gap for low income people in Wisconsin. The legal aid system can only do more with less for a time; funding cuts and layoffs mean that they must now do less with less.

But the problems and the solutions go beyond money. As one speaker with a state agency noted, her office modified its processes for gathering evidence and informing participants of their rights as part of an effort to become more user-friendly for people who don’t have lawyers. Many witnesses spoke about the value of having volunteer lawyers and free legal clinics serving their communities. Recruiting and retaining more volunteer attorneys for these projects will take more than money. At the same time, lawyers who provide pro bono service acknowledge that they are only one piece of a larger system. Other speakers have highlighted the vital access to justice role played by people who are not lawyers – domestic advocates and benefits specialists. Social workers and clergy have described the desperate situations they encounter when they have nowhere to refer the people who come to them for help. Judges and court clerks have told us about the overwhelming challenges they face in the courthouse when people are forced to represent themselves in complex and high stakes legal matters. Some judges have even responded by appointing attorneys at county expense to represent indigent parties in civil cases.

What follows is not an exhaustive list of all the points raised at the two most recent hearings but rather a sampling of the range of issues and ideas that were put forward.


Milwaukee speakers ask whether we are moving in the right direction

Milwaukee’s hearing panel included Commission members Hannah Dugan, Ness Flores and John Ebbott. They were joined by Justice Patience Roggensack (Wisconsin Supreme Court), Leah Fiasca (Greater Milwaukee Committee), Sen. Chris Larson (7th Senate District), Chief Judge Randy R. Koschnick (District III, Wisconsin Court System), Janan Najeeb (Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition), William Richards, III (Donors Forum of Wisconsin) and Tom Cannon (Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee).

What they heard:

  • We are moving in the wrong direction – In one of the hearing’s most memorable moments, former Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann spoke on behalf of the indigent families he regularly visits in his role as a volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He regularly sees families who are living on the margins of society economically but have legal needs that are complex. McCann warned about the impact of cuts to civil legal services, saying that “this is the hour where the sun may be setting on some of our existing services.”
  • Law students are a great access to justice resource – Angela Schultz and Julie Darneider from the hearing’s host, Marquette Law School described the emphasis on service to others at the law school and how that is reflected in the pro bono and clinical programs they have created. From a Pro Bono Society to recognize law student service to the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic, law students now play a major role in helping to meet the civil legal needs of low income people in the area.
  • The court system is trying to meet the challenge – Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers noted that in Milwaukee County 70-80% of family law cases now include at least one party who doesn’t have a lawyer.  That creates enormous challenges for everyone involved: litigants, attorneys and judges. Milwaukee County Clerk of Courts John Barrett and Dawn Caldart from the Milwaukee Justice Center both praised the assistance that staff and volunteers in that center have been able to provide to over 11,000 residents so far in 2012.
  • One size does not fit all – Caldart spoke about the need for a continuum of services from online forms and clinics like hers to various degrees of legal representation, so that Wisconsin provides the appropriate level of assistance to people when they need help with civil legal issues.
  • Language access is still an issue – As Jason Mishlow from Centro Legal noted, their reduced fee legal services program fills a vital need for low cost legal services for the area’s Spanish-speaking community.
  • Leadership is a vital ingredient for success – Two speakers, Diane Diel and Mike Gonring, focused their remarks on the importance of leadership from all those who have a stake in access to justice.  A former State Bar President, Diel recounted the State Bar’s leadership in conducting the landmark Wisconsin Civil Legal Needs Study and the Bridging the Justice Gap report which became the basis for the State Bar’s petition asking the Supreme Court to create the Access to Justice Commission.  As Diel noted, “The problem is larger than lawyers and courts.” If we truly want to make a difference, she suggested, “Let’s be creative and set aside old concerns.” Gonring, who leads the pro bono program at Quarles & Brady LLP, emphasized the need for more law firms to make legal services to poor people the focus of their pro bono efforts. He then called on the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take a more active leadership role within the Access to Justice Commission and in the Legislature when state funding for civil legal services is on the table, because that is what experience in other states has shown to be most effective in driving change.
  • Models of success that we can replicate – Julie Turkoske from Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin spoke about the pro bono guardianship project for parents of disabled children that she would like to see replicated elsewhere in Wisconsin. The project is a collaboration between the hospital and volunteer attorneys to assist low-income parents who need to establish guardianship over seriously disabled children once those children become adults. Turkoske recounted the suffering experienced by one patient when her parents needed to obtain the necessary guardianship that would allow them to authorize the surgical procedure she needed. The volunteers in the project make a huge difference for Children’s Hospital patients but caregivers and volunteer attorneys elsewhere should also be using this model. Nicole Zimmer (see below) noted another project with demonstrated value that could be expanded.
  • New ways of recruiting more volunteers – Karl Erickson from the ELCA Urban Outreach Center in Kenosha described the free legal clinic that was created at the center by local volunteers with help from the State Bar. Their volunteers have been, in Erickson’s words, “changing lives” as they served almost 150 people in the last year. Still, they need more volunteer attorneys. Erickson recommended that lawyers be allowed to fulfill some of their continuing legal education requirement by doing pro bono work in programs like his as a way to help close the gap between the number of volunteers they have and the number they need.
  • Sometimes there is no substitute for a lawyer’s help – Nicole Zimmer from the SeniorLaw project at Legal Action of Wisconsin spoke movingly about her work serving the legal need of seniors in Milwaukee County who have been victims of crime and seniors who face a range of other legal issues. So far this year, she has helped over 60 seniors avoid eviction. She is the only lawyer left on this project and cannot possibly meet the needs of the low income elderly population in the county without more help.  For her frail and elderly clients, online forms and brief advice are insufficient. She also explained how the SeniorLaw projects helps to reduce the financial burden on state and county budgets. Even if she could meet the local need, Zimmer wondered what help seniors elsewhere receive.  She recommended that it be expanded to serve more senior citizens in other parts of the state.

In Madison, “There are choices to be made”

The Madison regional hearing at Madison College was moderated by Commission member Marsha Mansfield of UW Law School. She was joined on the panel by Justice Pat Crooks (Wisconsin Supreme Court), Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, (45th Assembly District), Rich Lynch (President, J.H. Findorff & Son, Inc.), Martha Cranley (United Way of Dane County), former State Bar President James C. Boll, Jr. (Madison Gas & Electric), Blaine R. Renfert, (Foley & Lardner, LLP), Roger Putnam (Putnam Roby Williamson Communications), Kelly Nickel (State Bar of Wisconsin), John Molinaro (Jefferson County Board of Supervisors) and J. Russell Podzilni, (Rock County Board of Supervisors).

What they heard:

  • “There are choices to be made.”-  That was the simple but powerful message from Pastor Kevin Evanco at the Fountain of Life Center. He regularly sees families desperate for help that he cannot provide for individuals who face legal issues that are beyond their ability to help themselves. He urged the Commission and policy makers to seek out thoughtful, compassionate choices that will help meet these needs in our community.
  • Sometimes the choices are difficult – Dane County Clerk of Courts Carlos Esqueda provided one example. His office houses the Dane County Legal Resource Center and associated legal clinics with support from Law Librarian Lisa Winkler. The Legal Resource Center is a vital part of the system for serving thousands of county residents who need answers to questions that judges and staff in the clerk’s office cannot provide. Yet, Dane County’s modest funding for the Legal Resource Center is always precarious. That experience has left Esqueda and other county clerks uncertain about the wisdom of asking counties to absorb the additional cost of paying for appointed counsel in civil cases.
  •  Appointment of counsel may be one solution – Judge William Hue from Jefferson County described the choice he made after he saw too many self-represented litigants trying to fend for themselves in a court process that they didn’t understand and were ill equipped to navigate. He is one of only a few judges in the state who has adopted a practice of using his inherent authority as a judge to appoint counsel at county expense for indigent parties in civil cases when it is clear that the person cannot effectively represent him or herself.
  • Legal aid lawyers provide key expertise – Kevin Magee, managing attorney for the Madison office of Legal Action of Wisconsin provided compelling testimony on his experience representing a migrant worker who sought his help after being illegally evicted from company housing for simply drinking a beer on his steps during his off hours. The employer had recruited the worker from 1500 miles in Texas away without providing the federally required notice about the rules in company housing. With Magee’s help through the migrant workers project he heads, the worker was able to recover his lost wages and obtain some measure of justice.
  • Nonlawyer advocates also play a key support role in access to justice – Two victims of domestic violence testified that the nonlawyer legal advocates at Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) were crucial to helping them understand their rights and obtain legal protection from their abusers. Betsy Abramson from the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging noted the expertise and value provided to seniors by elderly benefits specialists around the state.
  • Language and cultural barriers pose special challenges for the justice system – Alicia Nall from Hope House described how her staff had been able to help a Ukrainian victim of domestic abuse overcome the language barrier, escape her abuser and obtain the legal help she needed from a volunteer attorney in the community. She was lucky. Many other immigrant victims are left to help themselves. Gricel Santiago Rivera explained that the many Latino and Hmong victims she sees in her reduced fee law practice are particularly vulnerable, because they don’t speak English and they often have only a limited understanding of the legal process. Simple misunderstandings or mistranslations can have tragic results.
  • Our legal institutions can be made more self-help friendly –  Tracey Schwalbe spoke about the procedural and cultural changes they implemented at the Labor & Industry Review Commission to adapt to the reality of people who cannot obtain the legal representation they need. Hearing officers now take the initiative to develop a proper record and they agency views educating litigants as part of its mission, even when it means helping a litigant comply with the proper process for suing the agency in court over its decisions.
  • The lack of help for civil problems can lead costlier criminal problems – Speakers from the State Public Defender’s office, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Madison Urban League’s Fatherhood Initiative emphasized the need to deal with civil issues like accruals of unpaid child support before they become criminal contempt cases that are more expensive for the legal system and more damaging to children whose parents are incarcerated.
  • Broad collaborations can make a difference – Bill Druliner from Greenpath Debt Solutions and Sarah Orr from the Consumer Law Clinic at UW Law School spoke about the tremendous value of providing legal assistance to desperate and overwhelmed homeowners who are facing foreclosure, especially when those homeowners have valid defenses or are eligible for loan modifications. Few homeowners have attorneys in a foreclosure action, while the bank always has an attorney. In Dane County a taskforce composed of lawyer, housing counselors, lenders, social services providers, public officials and others helped to develop the  Dane County Foreclosure Answer Clinic. In that project, a group of Orr’s law students, volunteer attorneys and counselors have been able to help over 250 Dane County homeowners understand their rights, options for saving their homes, the foreclosure process and how to answer the complaint. The program is a model for other counties.
  • Free is not the only model for improving access – Ben Schulenburg, who practices law with his father in Madison, and Jennifer Binkley, from Community Justice, emphasized the value of a reduced fee model as an adjunct to programs that provide free services with staff or outside volunteers. None of the existing models for service have come close to meeting the demand for help. It will take a broad range of efforts to make progress.
  • Increasing access to justice can also pay economic dividends – Multiple speakers emphasized that when legal services programs or volunteers are able to help a person secure basic housing, food, employment, public benefits or health care, they become more secure and more productive members of the community.  A recent summary of some of the research (pdf) on the economic benefits of legal services was provided.

Our choices have and will continue to say a great deal about the value we place on providing equal justice for all. The Access to Justice Commission will continue to do its part to help move everyone forward.