Montana Public Radio

Montana Supreme Court: Access To Justice At Risk

Oct 15, 2015

Montana’s courts are busy, and getting busier. Beth Baker is a Montana Supreme Court Justice.

"Right now [in] our district courts, the average is about 1,100 cases per judge. Last year we had a record number of filings, over 53,000. "

And it’s not necessarily because people are lawsuit-happy, Baker says.

Montana Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker
Credit Courtesy Montana Supreme Court

"In child abuse and neglect cases, there’s just been astronomical growth in those over last five years, and those cases take a lot of a judge’s time. The whole purpose is to try to see if parents can be re-united, so it requires a lot of hands-on time with the judge."

Another thing that’s slowing down Montana courts in recent years, Baker says, is a growing number of people who come to court without a lawyer or legal help.

"It’s becoming more and more difficult to afford lawyers, and we have a tremendous outpouring of support from our legal community. Last year Montana lawyers did almost $20 million worth of free and reduced fee legal work, but even if everybody’s doing their part, there’s just not enough to go around."

Now, Justice Baker and the Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission are looking for ideas on what to do. The commission is starting a tour of public forums across the state to bring together local judges, legal aid groups, political leaders and other community groups to brainstorm ways to help people, and especially low income people, be able to solve their legal problems. The first forum happens Wednesday afternoon in Kalispell.

"Because this is an issue that affects the whole community, having healthcare providers involved hospitals, mental health centers, members of the business community, because when we get to the basic legal issues, if it's your employee or your patient and they're having a crisis in their life it ends up affecting your business. So if we're going to figure out a solution to this, I think we need to figure out how it impacts our whole community and why participation by the whole community is going to be critical to reaching a solution that works for everybody."

Montana courts did a similar listening tour in 2008, and Baker says the dialogs launched new initiatives that helped more people get access to legal help, like one that came about after a forum in Helena.

"There was someone there from Carroll College who got together with our state law librarian and said let’s use Carroll pre-law students to help with the self-help law center and have them engage with people in the community who need help. And it sort of eventually helped lead to our Justice for Montana project which now staffs a lot of our court help centers with Americorps volunteers."

Baker is hoping for similar synergies from the series of forums that launch in Kalispell Wednesday, but she also says the Access to Justice Commission needs to hear from people who’ve had good and bad experiences with the state’s courts, to help them understand what does and doesn’t work.

After Wednesday’s Forum in Kalispell, the commission will hold a forum in Great Falls in November, and then Billings, Missoula and Bozeman in the spring. Next fall it will meet in Butte and Helena.

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