by Mark Snider
On April 20th the University of Montana hosted a symposium entitled, “Missoula Access to Justice Forum”. The listening panel included, Hon. Mike McGrath, Chief Justice, Montana Supreme Court, Hon. Leslie Halligan, district Court Judge, 4th Judicial district (Missoula County), Hon. Winona Tanner, Chief Judge, Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, Hon. Karen Orzech, Justice of the Peace, Missoula County, Representative Kimberly Kudik, House District 94, Representative Ron Ehli, House District 86 and Dean Paul Kirgis from the Alex Blewett III School of Law.
The speakers included Kat Werner from the YWCA, Charlotte Beatty representing the Court Help Program, Sindy Filler, Certified Interpreter, Maylinn Smith representing the Blewett School of Law, Ann Sherwood from the Tribal Defenders Office, Erin Fowler from the Poverello Center, Meri Althauser from the Western Montana Bar Association and Ed Higgins from Montana Legal Services Association.
Two speakers told of a need for more Pro Bono or legal help for the poor or disadvantaged residents of Montana. Yet neither the panel nor the speakers discussed solutions to these needs or the responsibility of our government to provide legal aid to those who cannot afford an attorney.
The Montana Legal Services Association reports that in 2015 they had over 6,000 requests for help but could only handle 2,761 of the cases. They also reported, “Despite the civil & legal aid provided in Missoula County by MLSA and others, small staff size and lack of resources mean that the need for civil legal aid remains high.”
The Western Montana Bar Association Pro Bono Program reports that they “…provide limited scope advice appointments” and that they assisted 181 clients in 2015. However, they did not report how many people they had to turn away and could not find affordable legal representation.
Also, the Montana Supreme Court – Court Help Program, Self Help Law Center reported they have helped “self-represented litigants” gain information about their rights and responsibilities through their free service. However, they did not report on the effectiveness of the program, the quality of information they provided or the satisfaction rating of the programs participants.
The fact is that thousands of Montanans are in need of legal services but cannot afford the high cost of legal representation. These Montanans include retired individuals living on Social Security, Veterans, low wage earners, abused women, the elderly, the disabled and mentally ill to name a few.
After the presentation the public was invited to comment or make suggestions. The first to comment was Mark Snider who is a candidate for House District 87. He quoted the Constitutions contention that we must “establish justice” and “promote the general welfare” of all of our citizens, not just the rich.
His comment card, which he read said, “Justice, whether it is civil or criminal, costs an individual between $175 and $250 an hour. Most Montanans do not make that in a whole day. Has everyone here recited the “Pledge of Allegiance”? We end that pledge with these words, “with liberty and justice for all”. Please note that it did not say “justice for only the rich”. Unfortunately, the most important aspect of our justice system is referred to as “billable hours”. If one does not have the money, the system judges you as “undeserving of justice”.
Mark also agreed with the second speaker, Jim Olsen, who said we have a good model in Ravalli County for dealing with domestic and child abuse and mental illness crises and that the key is agency cooperation. Jim also said the court system itself was way too expensive and the rules need to change to make it work, not for the lawyers, but for the people.
After the conference Jim said that lawyers should be required to perform pro bono work as part of their job description.
A third speaker who had difficulty with his microphone told the panel that he experienced a situation where judges did not follow the law in regards to their duties as judges and even gave case numbers as examples.
Hopefully, the Missoula Access to Justice Forum will continue to listen the public’s demands for more fair and affordable legal services for those in Montana who cannot afford the high cost of justice. Changes must be made so every Montanan has access to legal representation as the Pledge of Allegiance and our Constitution imply.