Report Details Need for Education, Increased Access to Civil Legal Resources

Report details need for more education, dependable services for Montanans in civil law

The Montana Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission has released a report stemming from a series of public forums held last year on education and access relating to civil legal matters.

According to the report, published Dec. 28, many low- to moderate-income Montanans, of which there are 182,000 in the state, often do not know the civil legal system, their rights within it, or how to access the available resources designed to help them. The report also noted the resources for such populations are usually stretched beyond their limits.

Forum “listening” meetings were held in Kalispell, Great Falls, Billings, Missoula, Butte, Bozeman, and Helena between October 2015 and October 2016. During these sessions, a listening panel comprised of representatives from the Montana Supreme Court, Access to Justice Commission, Legislature, Governor’s Office, and Montana’s American Indian tribes, as well as local judges, local community service providers, and the Montana Bar Association.

Presenting the comments were representatives from the Montana Legal Services Association, Montana Justice Foundation, Montana AAA Legal Services, local judges and court staff, domestic violence shelters, health care providers, American Indian communities, programs for the disabled and the elderly, military and veterans’ organizations, and youth advocates.

The panel found that low- to moderate-income Montanans most often face legal crises stemming from housing problems, custody disputes, domestic violence, and debt collection. These issues are often compounded with other complicating factors, the report said, such as mental illness or diminished capacity, substance abuse, physical disabilities, threats to safety, and child care. Many of these issues are intersectional, meaning they affect and intensify the other.

Many Montanans don’t realize, for instance, that they don’t have the right to an appointed attorney while facing civil issues. They can be evicted, lose custody of their children, or lose their home without ever having the right to an attorney.

“Addressing a civil legal crisis without the help of an attorney can be overwhelming,” the report stated, going on to say that this challenge, added on top of others, leads to a fear of the legal system for many people.

Some statewide programs are working, the report noted, such as the Montana Legal Services Association and the Court Help Centers, of which there are six in the state. The Aging Services Bureau’s Legal Services Developer and Montana AAA Legal Services, as well as university-based legal programs, also performed well for their clients.

However, even glowing reviews for these programs came with the acknowledgment that they lack the capacity to address the sheer need in the state.

Public comment to the listening panel detailed the need for not just volunteers in these programs, but dedicated, full-time legal aid staff to ensure that all Montanans have meaningful access to quality services. There is also a need for more lawyers able to give legal advice in civil matters — the Court Help program gives information but not legal advice, for instance.

There’s also a need for more holistic solutions to the problem, those that could address the interconnected nature of civil and criminal problems.

Forum participants made suggestions on how to fix the problems, including alternative dispute resolution, a specialty court for domestic violence issues, and securing and privatizing funding for civil legal aid.

The Access to Justice Commission concluded that there needs to be a statewide inventory of services and programs available in each region, and a means for making this inventory known in those regions. Along with the inventory, the commission said there should be a means for linking Montanans with legal problems to the programs and service providers.

The commission also determined that more education is needed regarding the relationship between civil legal needs and health outcomes, housing security, school attendance, a productive workforce, transition for returning veterans, community re-entry for offenders, and the protection of seniors.

Finally, the commission concluded that secure, sustainable funding is necessary to achieve an effective continuum of services.

The full report is available online at

  • geraldcuvillier

    Well it looks as if the trial lawyers are getting their digs in first. Next they will make it impossible to do any kind of business without their input.

  • R Ashton

    The report given to the paper is rather one sided. Having
    attended the public input meeting in Kalispell, I can say there was deliberately no public input allowed. After the initial announcements in the paper of the meeting, the panel was
    overdoubled just the day or two before, thus ensuring there would be absolutely no time for any public input, which is exactly what occured, although one woman tried at the end and was stopped. (I’d left the meeting by then, but had a couple acquaintences call to
    fill me in on it.)

    Of panel members called just the day or two before, some had absolutely no idea why they had been called to attend. One requested, declined, due to short notice.

    The report details should include that the “Need For Education” is to the judges and legal field in the state itself. They are not up to date, and largely seem not to care about their duties, which sole responsibility and existance of their job is to serve us, not further victimize and injure litigants.

    The problem is not really with the people, but within the broken civil/district court system itself. When judges have no clue about the disability accommodations laws in accessing the courts, routinely violate litigants most basic rights of due process and equal access to a real justice process, walk all over and steam roll litigants who should dare even appear before a court w/o an attorney. Their process, rules and procedure are not
    law, and they can and should be even if necessary, reviewed in a hearing by the
    judge. This is not legal advice, it is to help people understand what is being done.
    Judges have a duty to ensure that if a litigant (w/o attorney) does not, or obviously to the judge, understand something, to explain it to them, and ensure their rights are upheld. They also have a duty to restrain aggressive and abusive behavior by opposing attorneys from attacking and damaging litigants. This does not happen here. This shows clear bias against the poor, particularly when an opposing litigant has an attorney.

    The article does not tell you that well over 50% of litigants in our District court system are w/o legal counsel. They most often lose, not because their case is not valid, but because justice and truth mean nothing to the courts. How dare an individual try and present a case before a court w/o one of their own who will bow down to varying degrees to the local “powers that be” of the elbow rubbers. Your pretty much life means zilch to them.

    The article does not tell you that while you may not be entitled to having an attorney in civil matters, one may be appointed by the Court, as full, standby, or limited scope.
    If you are against a party w/an att’y and given this provision, there is clear bias against you, denying you Equal Access to the judicial system. It also does not state that if a warrant is requested, you are then entitled to a defense attorney.

    If during this meeting, they were actually interested in the people they are working for, they would have ensured that the right for the public to speak at a public meeting was upheld. They did not even do this, which they, being trained, must certainly know is required, but as usual, bulldoze the public for not knowing their game playing tactics, and prey on the public’s mistaken belief that they have the ethics and humanity required to fulfill their roles in serving us.

    As far as any “legal aid” which the article does state is strained, which is putting it
    lightly, being MLSA had their staff severely cut a few yrs. back. You usually can’t get through, or go through considerable time wasting processes on phone or online just to be referred back and forth between referral service, whidh if you get gives you an outdated list of attorneys no longer participating. This extends to MT Human Rights
    Bureau, Disability Rights of MT, the Labor Dept. review boards, DPHHS “fair hearings” and MMLP, some of which serve mainly as time and energy, do nothing but waste tax payer dollars, send you in meaningless circular phone calls to try and dispose of you, instead of taking responsibilty and accountability for the various things they are to
    oversee. If they can not do this (and likely will not, they need to cease to exist,
    revamp the system with people with ethics that realize people are human beings that deserve to be treated as such, and that the purpose of these systems is to work toward that end with just resolutions.

    I’m not sure where they got the “glowing reviews” from. It certainly is not from anyone I have had contact with, in trying to gain aid. And of course most of it cannot be considered “legal advice” anyway, making it virtually worthless. I know all these things having been subjected to abuse of process and civil rights violations personally
    through this system for a number of years, caused additional disability, and
    had my entire life pretty much destroyed by people who have no concern for the truth, principal, or even ensuring your basic, basics; i.e. completion of discovery, making amended complaint, accepting low income application forms, ordering opposing counsel to pay for appointment of counsel if they are unhappy and making your life miserable, to try and remove you from your case. Yes, judges can do that. Yes, they can inform you, as can trained Clerk’s of Court on processes, procedures, rules, but that is hard to do when the judges change this to their liking at any time, even mid hearing. It is not what they are suppose to do, but it happens regularly in this county, and much of the State of MT.

    Yes, I have offered some solutions in the cases I’ve filed against the county and state for these violations, it is not just about me, but everyone attempting to access justice, and ultimately all of your civil rights. No, they have not made any attempt to negotiate or even respond. That is the typical m.o. of our state gov. and hand in glove medical system for the most part: ” Don’t respond, maybe it will just go away”, Not!

    Given the number of people I have encountered with similar experiences over the past couple years, abuse of legal process and civil rights, including fraud by officers of the court and doctoring docket registries by the District Clerk of Court, this is a common problem. It needs to be dealt with, and the easiest way, is for our employees to straighten up and start flying right, but it seems they are not particularly interested. This leads to a growing loss of legitimacy to what should be an honorable and respected
    system, put here to help increase civility and humaneness, not the reverse.

    Finally, given the number of us w/o the overpaid attorneys, it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Either start doing your jobs, or get out. According to call with Gov.
    Bullock’s office it is us (though he should be doing something) that have the say in holding judges/courts accountable. They do after all, answer to we the people, you just have to also smell the coffee, and realize they are just other human beings of only equal value to you and I, with a role to fulfill. If they do not, there needs to be accountability,
    including the supposed oversight committees in this state that do not properly function, and have no oversight themselves on attorney and judicial standards, just as
    the business going on statewide with CPS.

    Lastly, we still do not have the results from the federally ordered review of the lack of legal aid in the state of MT that started last year. This may come back with somewhat different results than reported here.

    Thanks to the few attorneys who do give of their time on the extremely limited and narrowly scoped legal aid available in the state, there should be more of you. One to, per the article, about every 10,000 people is not doable, and I expect the number is actually higher, depending on the income level or standard they used to come to their number of those unable to acquire or retain an attorney. How many of you have $10,000 sitting around just to start a case, much less 30-40 to possibly see it to completion? Stress from litigation is one thing, bullying (stalking) and abuse of process
    (under color of law), is quite another.