I write as a Montana attorney and board member for the Montana Justice Foundation, a nonprofit organization working to serve Montana’s civil legal aid community. Many people are familiar with the constitutional requirement of legal counsel for someone accused of a crime. Such counsel is not guaranteed in civil cases, which covers a broad spectrum of legal problems including protection for domestic violence victims and their children, relief for seniors from consumer scams and securing housing for veterans. Many people who need legal help are low-income and cannot afford an attorney, forcing them to navigate a complex system alone.
Thankfully, programs exist in Montana to help fill this gap. For 50 years the Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) has provided civil legal aid to Montanans. For nearly a decade, dozens of AmeriCorps members have devoted a year or two years of service to Montana’s Court Help Program, giving tens of thousands of Montanans legal information to help navigate the court system when they cannot afford an attorney. However, these programs rely on funding from two national groups – the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and the Corporation for National and Community Service.
President Donald Trump’s budget proposal eliminates federal money for both organizations. Currently, LSC provides 42 percent of MLSA’s annual budget. With only half of its budget, MLSA would help 3,000 fewer Montanans each year. Elimination of the Corporation for National and Community Service would mean the end of eight AmeriCorps programs in Montana.
These programs are essential to support access to justice for all Montanans, regardless of income. The justice system depends on the programs. Our elected leaders need to hear from you. I strongly encourage you to contact Sens. Jon Tester, Steve Daines, and Rep. Greg Gianforte, and let them know you support funding for civil legal aid in Montana.