By Jennifer Binkley
Community Justice Inc. (CJI) is a nonprofit law firm that provides people with access to justice by oﬀering aﬀordable legal services from qualified and dedicated attorneys. Our attorneys work with low-income families and individuals to secure fair representation in court, protecting the legal rights of those who would otherwise face the system alone. While that usually means taking on cases directly, CJI attorneys have often worked to help extend justice in other settings.
Unfortunately, what we see at CJI is an ever-widening gap to justice created by federal, state and private cuts to legal service funding in the past few years. CJI works hard to find creative avenues to funding — use of volunteer and other donated resources — and innovative programs to reach as many individuals and families as possible.
This July, CJI attorneys Jennifer Binkley and Adrienne Olson partnered with the State Bar of Wisconsin, Dane County Bar Association, Madison College Paralegal Program, Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources (GWAAR), and volunteer attorneys from CUNA Mutual Group to help run a basic estate planning clinic for Dane County low income seniors and veterans. The clinic, which is modeled after the nationally successful Wills for Heroes program, provided free wills and estate planning advice. CJI hopes to expand the program within the year to provide services for all low income area residents.
CJI has also been active in facilitating or participating in other programs to provide legal assistance to those in need. For example, CJI accepts referrals for flat-fee restraining orders from the Domestic Abuse Interventions Service in Dane County (DAIS) and has provided training for pro bono attorneys representing litigants at restraining order hearings. In addition, we take referrals from the Tenant Resource Center in Madison to help resolve landlord-tenant disputes.
One of CJI’s most important partnerships is with the University of Wisconsin Law School. CJI maintains an active relationship with the law school’s pro bono program and career services to engage law students in helping our clients and the attorneys in our office. Similarly, our relationship with the law school’s Family Court Clinic allows clients to receive free legal assistance from law students enrolled in a clinical program under our supervision. Finally, CJI works to target clients most in need of assistance by accepting referrals from the State Bar Modest Means program and Legal Action of Wisconsin.
Because CJI does not have any paid administrative or office clerical staff, volunteer help of all kinds is critical to keeping our costs as low as possible for low income clients. Client intakes are completed exclusively by volunteer students. Our partnership with the UW Law School has helped to provide for-credit programs for many of these volunteers, providing hands-on legal experience and an opportunity to serve the Madison community. CJI receives nearly 50 volunteer hours per week from students in various stages of their legal training. Similarly, CJI is proud to provide an established channel for legal professional volunteers looking to help us close the justice gap in the Madison community. Attorneys with highly specialized skills in particular legal fields have worked with CJI attorneys to serve our clients’ specific legal needs. These have ranged from setting up specialized trusts for disabled clients to legal & accountant reviews of business records for a client wronged by a contractor. Some pro bono attorneys also take on cases for free that have been referred by CJI.
CJI has continued to grow despite the setbacks in resources for legal services in Wisconsin and the country. We have served over 500 clients so far in 2014, adding to the more than 3,000 area residents CJI has helped over the last decade. Currently, CJI employs six attorneys working exclusively in areas of high-demand for civil legal aid but we receive inquiries from almost three times as many potential clients as we can handle. While the challenge is great, the attorneys and volunteers at CJI remain committed to their mission of providing accessible representation in our community.