HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission is calling for action in four primary areas after concluding a year-long statewide series of public forums designed to evaluate the state of access to the civil justice system in Montana. The public forums were held in Kalispell, Great Falls, Billings, Missoula, Bozeman, Butte, and Helena between October 2015 and October 2016. The Commission brought together judges, legislators, community leaders, and organizations that serve Montanans needing assistance with legal issues to discuss pressures on Montana courts and the problems people face when they encounter barriers in gaining access to our legal system.
In a report released today, the Commission found that many low- and moderate-income Montanans face legal crises arising out of housing problems, parenting and custody disputes, domestic violence, and debt collection. Montana’s veterans, a growing population of seniors, Native American communities, domestic violence victims, children, and people with disabilities all are affected by legal and non-legal problems that often go unaddressed because people do not understand how those problems are related and do not know where to go for help. Complicated paperwork, limited literacy skills, lack of education and awareness, and poor prior experiences lead to a fear of the legal system for many people. In addition, many Montanans—including many senior citizens—live in isolated and rural areas without ready access to services.
The Commission report lauded successes across the State, including the Court Help Program—which has provided thousands of Montanans with “self-help” services for addressing their problems in court—and non-profit legal aid
providers like Montana Legal Services Association and Aging Services’ AAA
Legal Developer program, which provide legal advice and representation with
online, phone, and in-person assistance to low-income residents and senior
citizens. Individual Montanans voiced appreciation for these programs, and
testified that they were able to overcome their legal challenges after receiving the
assistance of a qualified attorney.
The report found a clear consensus that more needs to be done to get legal help
to people when they need it. “Access to legal assistance can help prevent
people from defaulting on court notices and other legal obligations, keep them in
their homes and in their jobs, find them safe shelter, provide legal protection for
their children, and resolve their legal issues without burdening Montana’s court
system,” the report says.
Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker, who chairs the Access to Justice
Commission, said the forum series also helped bring awareness to the network
of resources available in different communities. “It is gratifying to see the number
of Montanans working all across the state to help their neighbors,” Baker said.
“At the same time, we heard consistently how their efforts fall short of making
sure every Montanan has a fair shake in getting problems resolved in a fair and
timely way.” Baker said these are problems that involve essential human
needs—like food, shelter and health care. She added that the forums showed
the need to make better use of services that currently exist and to expand the
number of legal professionals available to provide needed advice and
The report points out that, with many legal problems like housing and domestic
violence, receiving legal help at the critical time can prevent a major crisis. It
recommends the following actions:
1. Develop and maintain a statewide inventory of services and programs
available by region, and a means for making that inventory known and
available throughout Montana communities.
2. Develop and maintain a means for linking Montanans who have legal
problems with appropriate programs, attorneys, and service providers.
3. Promote better understanding of, and facilitate partnerships with, agencies
and organizations to address the relationships between civil legal needs and
non-legal issues involving health, housing, education, seniors, veterans, and
re-entry of offenders.
4. Secure adequate, sustainable funding to achieve an effective continuum of
services, from self-help services to civil legal aid, including mediation or
other dispute resolution mechanisms that can act quickly to address civil
legal problems when they first arise.
Baker said that some of these actions will be undertaken by the Commission,
working together with interested organizations and agencies. The Commission
also will be asking the 2017 Legislature to approve increases in some court fees
to fund legal aid. “People come to court with the most important issues in their
lives,” Baker added. “Narrowing the justice gap will help ensure justice for all
Montanans, making our court system work effectively for every court user.”
The report, and more information about the Commission, may be found on the
Commission’s website, http://courts.mt.gov/supreme/boards/a2j.