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Commission appoints work group for Wisconsin civil right to counsel project

O.F.E. /Foter

The Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission has appointed a special working group to develop a formal proposal for a study that would evaluate the costs and benefits of providing counsel to low income individuals in some civil legal matters where basic human needs are at stake.  Initial members of the working group are Commission members Gregg Moore, Don Friske, John Ebbott, Deedee Rongstad and  Judge Margaret Vergeront as well as the Director of State Courts, John Voelker.

Formation of the working group was prompted by recent developments in the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s consideration of the “Civil Gideon” petition seeking a new court rule that would require counties to pay for appointments of lawyers for indigent people in certain cases where basic human needs are at stake. The Wisconsin petition is part of a national Civil Gideon effort.

At the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s most recent conference on the civil right to counsel petition, it appeared likely that a majority of the justices were prepared to deny the petition, primarily due to its financial impact on county governments that would have to pay for the appointed lawyers. However, the justices appeared to be leaning towards an order that would also suggest that the Access to Justice Commission to seek funding from the State Bar of Wisconsin’s access to justice reserve fund and others to study the value of appointing counsel in certain civil cases. The scope and design of the study would be left to the Commission. A number of justices have also inquired about the Commission’s willingness to undertake such a project.

After agreeing that it woud respond favorably to such a request from the court, the Commission discussed possible approaches to developing an appropriate study including project goals, funding and evaluation. The working group will be responsible for gathering suggestions and developing the details of a proposed study for the Commission’s consideration.

Wisconsin would not be the first state to undertake a study on this subject. Pilot programs are underway or have been conducted in other states to evaluate particular costs and benefits of appointing counsel for indigent litigants in certain types of civil cases. The largest effort is a new series of pilot projects funded under California’s Sargeant Shriver Act.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to discuss a draft order on the civil right to counsel petition at an open administrative conference on January 19 at 9:30 am CT (it will also be available live on Wisconsin Eye).