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. We have outlined some of our projects below.
Wisconsin Free Legal Answers – we are the sponsors of this project in Wisconsin.
Pro Bono Honor Society – recognizing the volunteer efforts of Wisconsin attorneys.
Preserving Federal Funding
The federally funded Legal Services Corporation is the largest single funding source for civil legal services to the indigent in Wisconsin. It continues to enjoy bipartisan support in Congress. But LSC is not immune from calls to reduce or even eliminate funding for the organizations 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. You can help us. Make sure that your members of Congress know where you stand on providing adequate funding for LSC. You can find helpful background information in this Wisconsin issue brief prepared by the ABA (pdf).
Restoring State Funding
The Commission and its equal justice stakeholders have also worked diligently to build bipartisan support in the Wisconsin Legislature for state funding of civil legal services in Wisconsin. Since 2015, the Wisconsin Legislature has appropriated and the Governor has signed a budget that appropriates $500,000 per year for civil legal services to domestic abuse victims. This is a great first step but there is more work to do to ensure that more of Wisconsin’s most vulnerable residents have access to the legal help they need to get back on their feet. What can you do? Call, write, or visit your state legislators to make sure that they know how much you value their support for civil legal aid to the indigent.
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. We do this through community events that we call Just Breakfast. We’ve held two events, in the Fox Valley and in Wausau, with more in the planning stage.
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. Private philanthropic efforts and civil legal aid are “natural allies.”
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. We developed a great resource to help you do that. Our downloadable Equal Justice Strong Communities brochure can be used as a concise way to preview your message with potential donors or to remind them of the connection between their philanthropic goals and the client services you provide. We’re using it in our outreach campaign to Wisconsin foundations. We also have printed copies available if you need them. Do you have a foundation relationship that you would like to talk about? Contact us. We’d like to hear about it.
Developing New Resources
The Commission led a successful effort to encourage funding of civil legal aid through the distribution of residual funds left over in class action settlement funds. The effort began with the development of a fact sheet on the voluntary use of what is called cy pres to direct unclaimed class action settlement funds to support civil legal services to the indigent in Wisconsin. We also filed Petition 15-06, which the Wisconsin Supreme Court granted, amending the rule governing state class actions and directing 50% of unclaimed class action settlement funds to the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation to support civil legal aid.
If you are involved in a federal class action case, consider designating a civil legal aid recipient beneficiary for any unclaimed funds 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, housing, 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.
The Commission launched the Wisconsin Pro Bono Honor Society to recognize lawyers who have provided at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services benefiting persons of limited means. Our goal is to increase the number of lawyers doing pro bono work and to ensure that they receive the support that they need from our stakeholders. Expanding public recognition is part of that effort.
We also launched a free online legal clinic, Wisconsin Free Legal Answers, to make brief legal advice available to more Wisconsin residents. The system screens clients for eligibility and allows them to post a question to a private messaging system. The questions are answered by volunteer Wisconsin attorneys.
We also proud to support the State Bar of Wisconsin’s successful effort to allow lawyers to claim CLE credit for some of their pro bono work.