Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission Urges Legislature to Fund Civil Legal Services
March 31, 2011
Gregg Moore, President 715-832-7109
Jeff Brown, Staff Coordinator 608-305-4205
MADISON – The Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission urges the Legislature and its Joint Committee on Finance to maintain the state’s commitment to fund civil legal services for Wisconsin’s poorest and most vulnerable residents by restoring funding for civil legal services in the 2011-13 state budget. Every state faces budget challenges but Wisconsin is the only state proposing a complete elimination of state funding for civil legal services at a time when the need for help with issues like foreclosure, bankruptcy, abuse, hunger and homelessness is rising.
As Commission President, Gregg Moore noted: “Funding civil legal services for the poor is part of a public/private partnership to achieve justice, and state financial support is essential. It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect that private sources – foundations, donations, attorney contributions, and volunteer lawyers – can, or should, meet the entire support needs of the civil legal services system.”
Wisconsin currently provides about $2.6 million per year in state funding for civil legal aid services for people who are unable to obtain legal assistance any other way because they have little income, are elderly, or are victims of abuse. The current funding comes, not from tax revenues, but from the “Justice Information Surcharge” ($4.00 of that $21.50 fee). The proposed budget redirects that $4.00 to other programs, eliminating funding for civil legal services.
The impact of this sudden and complete cut-off of state funding will be severe. It will quickly affect residents in every city, town and village in Wisconsin:
- At least 40 legal services staff positions will be lost, leaving at least 3,376 clients to face critical legal problems alone.
- These and other low-income families and individuals, senior citizens, and disabled persons will have no legal assistance when facing illegal eviction, foreclosure, threats of family violence or neglect, bankruptcy, consumer fraud, or wrongful denials of state or federal benefits such as food stamps, health insurance, or unemployment compensation.
- An already overburdened justice system will experience more unrepresented parties, more delays and more civil problems that spiral into even more expensive criminal issues.
Therefore, the Commission urges the Legislature to restore this vital funding so that Wisconsin’s legal services providers can continue to offer critically important assistance for our state’s most disadvantaged residents. Eliminating state funding for legal services to Wisconsin’s most vulnerable residents undermines our commitment to equal justice for all.
The Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission was established by an order of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Its mission is to develop and encourage means of expanding access to the civil justice system for unrepresented low-income Wisconsin residents. The Commission is composed of 17 members appointed by the Supreme Court, State Bar of Wisconsin, Governor, Assembly, Senate, Marquette University Law School, University of Wisconsin Law School and Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation. Learn more at http://wisatj.org/
UPDATE: The Commission also delivered its message in two letters to Joint Finance.