Community members and advocates from throughout the Green Bay and Fox Valley region gathered in Green Bay this week to share their experiences in responding to the overwhelming civil legal needs facing low-income area residents in the area. They were attending the first regional access to justice hearing convened by the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission. Our next hearing will be held in Eau Claire on July 31.
Speakers described struggling as professionals, as parents and as members of the community when they see when people have no financial resources and no where to turn for help to deal with domestic violence, foreclosure, evictions, child custody, unemployment, special education, disability benefits and more.
The Green Bay hearing panel heard from attorneys who volunteer their time to help at free legal clinics, staff from legal services organizations, parents and social workers.
Representatives from Disability Rights Wisconsin, Legal Action of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Judicare described how demand for their help has surged. At the same time, they detailed the staff and service reductions that followed the cuts in funding for the legal services they provide. The Wisconsin Legislature’s elimination of funding for civil legal services for the indigent from the state’s budget in 2011 was a particularly devastating blow. A member of the hearing panel, Judge David Raasch from the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribal Court, noted that other Midwestern states budget an average of $7.6 million per year for civil legal services to the poor.
Attorney Karen Roehl from Legal Action’s office in Oshkosh noted:
“We have more low income persons in our service area that qualify for our services then ever before.We have clients that had never been poor before – were in the middle class, had never qualified for our services in the past– and now, usually due to loss of a good paying job they had for years, find themselves facing legal and economic issues they never thought they would ever have to face . . . .”
Monica Murphy, staff attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin gave additional details on the impact of funding cuts on services.
In recent years we have seen a dramatic increase in the requests for our services. For example, in 2008 we provided 1:1 assistance to 3,779 people, in 2011 that number had jumped to 8,140. While the number of people seeking our assistance has jumped dramatically the same cannot be said for our resources. In fact in the last couple years we have seen large cuts to some of the grants we depend on to provide services. While we have tried to make do using reserves that we have had and adopting austerity measures, we are now facing the prospect of eliminating up to six positions in the upcoming fiscal year.
Attorneys who volunteer their time to make a difference described the rewards and the limitations of relying so heavily on volunteers to fill the gap left by shrinking legal aid offices. One attorney who volunteers with the Winnebago County Free Legal Clinic summed up the idea of relying on brief legal assistance at legal clinics as like “putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound” for some clients.
Additional hearings are scheduled for Eau Claire (July 31), Milwaukee (Sept. 13), Madison (September 18), Wausau (October 2) and La Crosse (October 16).