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In Montana The Demand For Affordable Legal Help Far Outstrips The Supply


Just because someone can’t afford a lawyer, doesn’t mean they don’t need one.

Holly Jordt, a nurse with the Flathead County Health Department works with a lot of low-income people and says a lot of them can’t make progress because of legal problems – civil legal problems, not criminal ones.

"Lots of housing issues, parenting plans, custody issues, divorce. Traffic violations, fines. Drug and alcohol addiction, orders of protection. I work with adolescent populations, and a lot of them are looking for emancipation because of unsafe home conditions. Family disputes over money or property. Social Security disability denials."

When people can’t use the courts to fight unfair evictions, to protect their assets from scammers or get fair custody arrangements with their kids, they can end up homeless or otherwise burdening an already strained social services system.

That’s what more than a dozen leaders of social and legal services groups told the state Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission yesterday in Kalispell.

Alison Paul told the commission it’s a problem that most people aren’t aware of.

"Many people don’t realize that you can lose your children, and not have the right to an attorney. You can lose your children in a custody battle. You can lose your house, and not have a right to an attorney to enforce your rights in court."

Paul works for the Montana Legal Services Association, a non-profit law firm that provides free civil legal aid to low income people. It’s got four offices - in Missoula, Billings, Helena and on the Crow reservation, staffed by 13 attorneys.

"That’s one attorney for every 144,000 poor people in the state*. Compare that to one attorney for every 270 people for the private bar, people [with incomes] above 125 percent of [federal] poverty [level]. Those are pretty bad statistics."

But it’s not just the poor who suffer when a lot of people who need lawyers can’t afford them, says Jim Taflan, administrator of the state Supreme Court’s Court Help program.

"Self-represented litigants, take more of the judge’s time, are generally not educated about legal matters, and may clog the court docket."

Taflan says people representing themselves in court is one of the justice system’s biggest challenges, and a growing challenge.

"In certain case types, an average of 53 percent of the cases involves at least one of the parties representing him or herself. It rises as high as 69 percent in some counties with certain case types."

Montana's legislature recognized the challenge in 2008, and since then has allocated about $300,000 dollars a year to support self-help legal centers. But everyone who works with poor or disadvantaged clients who addressed the Access to Justice Commission yesterday told them that the demand for affordable legal help far outstrips the supply.

"We don't have enough help. We don't have enough attorneys, we don't have enough money for attorneys to support the system that we have."

The Montana Legal Services Association’s Alison Paul:

"We don’t have enough help. We don’t have enough attorneys, we don’t have enough money for attorneys to support the system that we have."

And money’s not the only issue. Grant Snell is an attorney with the Crowley Fleck law firm. It’s a big firm with a full time department devoted to providing free legal work for the needy. He says that by far the biggest demand for that is in the area of family law.

"I talk to a lot of local attorneys who are willing to do family law cases, but a big barrier is, they don’t do family law. They do other litigation, business law, estate planning, criminal law, and they just don't feel comfortable stepping into a new area of law. And so I think there's a willingness out there, but maybe the willingness is greater than the participation, I’ll put it that way."

So, what’s the solution to the imbalance between the need affordable legal help and the too limited supply? That’s a big issue that’s not going to be solved overnight. The state Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission is doing seven forums like yesterday’s in Kalispell around the state over the next year to get ideas. It then plans to  offer recommendations to state lawmakers in time for the 2017 legislative session.

The last person to address the listening panel yesterday offered a bigger picture perspective.

"I think in general we can say what we’re dealing with here is not a legal problem, but a social problem."

"We have a society where the breakdown of the family, hard economic times, have put undue pressure on the legal system to respond, and frankly it wasn't designed for this."

Brian Muldoon is an attorney mediator in Whitefish.

"We have a society where the breakdown of the family, hard economic times, have put undue pressure on the legal system to respond, and frankly it wasn’t designed for this."

Muldoon, who runs a conflict resolution and mediation consulting firm, advocated for teaching people to resolve their conflicts outside of court and without lawyers, something he says he’s had seen succeed, and with less need for continuing litigation than conflicts dealt with in the courts.

The next forum to be held by the Montana Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission will be Great Falls on November 18.

Access to Justice Forum Series dates:

  • Kalispell - Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015
  • Great Falls - Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015
  • Billings - Wednesday, March 16, 2016
  • Missoula - Wednesday, April 13, 2016
  • Bozeman - Wednesday, May 18, 2016
  • Butte - Wednesday, September 21, 2016
  • Helena - Wednesday, October 19, 2016

*CORRECTION: At the forum in Kalispell, Alison Paul with Montana Legal Services Association said that there is "one attorney for every 144,000 poor people in the state." Her office has since corrected that number: "The number of MLSA attorneys available for low-income people in Montana is 14,800, NOT 144,000. We apologize for the mistake."

The story also states that the Montana Legislature allocates about $300,000 a year "to support attorneys who provide free legal help." That funding is actually for self-help legal centers and does not go to attorneys. That error is MTPR's.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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