Supreme Court seeks legislative study on access to civil legal services

Madison, Wisconsin - February 5, 2016

The Justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court have unanimously asked the co-chairs of the Wisconsin Joint Legislative Council to create a committee to study how to improve access to civil legal services for people who cannot afford a lawyer.

The Court made its request in a Jan. 19 letter to Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) and Rep. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan), who chair the Council.

“The Supreme Court recognizes that thousands of Wisconsinites are unable to afford legal services in civil cases. The Court believes that legal services are critical in many of these cases and that too often they are not provided…,” the justices wrote.

People affected by a lack of services often include the elderly, veterans, children, the disabled, low-wage workers, and the unemployed.

The Supreme Court has taken a variety of steps over the years in an attempt to address the concern, and the Legislature approved $500,000 annually in the current state budget. However, a more comprehensive solution and approach to the problem is needed, the justices wrote.

In 2007, the State Bar of Wisconsin conducted an extensive study, Bridging the Justice Gap: Wisconsin's Unmet Legal Needs, which found that more than 500,000 Wisconsin residents faced serious civil legal problems without the assistance of a lawyer or other legal professional. A 2013 report, The State of Equal Justice in Wisconsin, substantiated the earlier findings after a series of statewide hearings.

The Supreme Court responded to the initial study in 2009 by imposing a $50 annual assessment on attorneys as additional revenue for the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation, Inc. (WISTAF), which was created by the Court in 1986 to support civil legal services.

Also in 2009, the Court directed the creation of the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission (WATJC), a nonprofit corporation substantially funded by the State Bar to improve access to the civil justice system for unrepresented low income residents.

In 2011, the Court was asked to create a rule that would recognize a right to counsel in civil cases. The Court acknowledged the need for increased services but did not approve the proposal for lack of funding.

In 2014, the Court approved an increase in the fee that out-of-state lawyers must pay to practice in Wisconsin on a temporary basis. The fee was raised from $50 to $250 – with $100 going to WISTAF and $50 to WATJC.

The Court has considered several other proposed rule changes over the years and several proposals are still pending that would help increase access to legal services in civil cases. However, questions and concerns remain over funding sources.

One objective of the proposed study committee would be to brainstorm other possible sources of assistance and help to plan the most effective means of delivering services, the justices wrote. Every two years, Legislative leaders select issues for study by Legislative Council study committees, which often propose legislation.

Tom Sheehan
Court Information Officer
(608) 261-6640

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