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Wisconsin risks widening the justice gap

Wisconsin Capitol BuildingThe Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee moved one step closer to eliminating state funding for civil legal services to the indigent in Wisconsin, voting 13-3 on Thursday to remove the funding from the 2011-2013 budget.  The majority’s proposal (pdf) adopts Gov. Walker’s budget proposal to delete both the funding for civil legal services to the indigent and the statutory language that currently governs the administration of the grants. A motion to restore partial funding (pdf) was defeated 4-12.

Wisconsin currently provides about $2.6 million per year in state funding through the Justice Information Surcharge (pdf) to provide access to justice for Wisconsin residents who are experiencing serious civil legal problems but are unable to obtain legal assistance any other way because they have little or no income, are elderly, or are victims of abuse. Wisconsin’s civil legal services providers are a cost-effective way to provide a vital public service to thousands of Wisconsin residents. That much is clear from the most recent report from the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation (pdf) to the Department of Administration:

“In 2009-2010, for every dollar of state civil legal services appropriation funding, Wisconsin’s civil legal services providers received or recovered $11.36 for their clients (a net gain for the state of more than ten dollars for every dollar invested).”

If the Joint Finance Committee’s proposal ultimately passes the full Legislature, 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:

  • Projections are that at least 40 legal services staff positions will be lost, leaving at least 3,376 clients to face critical civil 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.

Overall, Wisconsin’s civil legal services system is only able to meet a fraction of the demonstrated need. A reliable, long-term partnership between all of the system’s stakeholders will be needed to change that. The State of Wisconsin’s level of commitment as a partner has a direct impact on others who help support the provision of civil legal services to the poor, from foundations and individual donors to the thousands of lawyers who volunteer their time every year to provide pro bono legal services.

Civil legal services to the indigent is both a cost-effective investment for Wisconsin and the right thing to do for those who cannot help themselves. Therefore, the Commission continues to urge the Legislature to restore this vital appropriation so that Wisconsin’s most disadvantaged residents will have access to the critically important civil legal services these funds support.