Access to the Courts Not Always Access to Justice

By Beacon Staff

At a forum last week to examine the difficulties low and moderate income Montanans typically encounter when navigating the legal system, state Supreme Court Justice James C. Nelson distilled the issue down to a single question: “What is the difference between simple access to the courts and access to justice?”

It is a question most of the speakers present at the forum – most of whom work for organizations that assist in providing legal services to the poor – know the answer to all too well, as they witness people who can’t afford an attorney try to manage their own bankruptcy filings, or fight for custody of their children or try to defend their rights as a tenant in a dispute with a landlord.

The “Access to Justice” forum, held at Kalispell’s Red Lion Inn for its fifth stop, is touring the state bringing attention to the gap in justice many citizens face when trying to defend their rights if they cannot afford a lawyer. In Montana, where more than 15 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty level, that’s a substantial segment of people who find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to civil legal issues.

The discussion, drawing an audience of more than 50, brought together all segments of the legal system. Listening panel members included Nelson, Flathead District Judge Katherine Curtis, Flathead County District Court Clerk Peg Allison, Rep. Bill Beck, R-Whitefish, and others.

At a lectern before them, speaker after speaker described the enormous efforts various social agencies and law firms have undertaken to help citizens attain legal representation, but how demand outstrips the services available.

Montana has roughly 3,000 attorneys, but it also has an estimated 225,000 unmet legal needs, said Patty Fain, the statewide pro bono coordinator for the state Supreme Court. Montana’s attorneys gave some 100,000 hours in pro bono work last year, a contribution of $10 million, but it still isn’t enough.

“Each attorney would need to take 85 cases in a year, or work full-time, to provide services to those folks,” Fain said.

Ed Higgins, managing attorney of the Montana Legal Services Association, told the panel of the 344 requests for assistance his group had from Flathead County residents last year. Out of that number, 188 people have received advice, 48 received some form of legal services and nine were represented by an attorney. Roughly half of the pleas for assistance dealt with family law.

“It’s the area of biggest need for low income Montanans,” Higgins said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we don’t have the resources to serve everybody that needs our help.”

As many other speakers would repeat, Higgins went on to list two other areas of legal issues likely to become increasingly problematic as the economy suffers.

“Often we deal with folks with a consumer issue or a housing issue,” Higgins said. “They don’t know how to pay the bills and make the rent.”

John McCrea, the legal service developer for the state’s aging services, pointed out Montana’s status as the third fastest aging state in the nation. The seniors he deals with have problems with medical debt, guardianship issues and tenant-landlord issues among others. Most Montana seniors also share a deep aversion to the legal system.

“They have a fear of the law,” McCrea said. “People are afraid, who are 70 and older, that someone will take away their rights.”

Deb Knaff of the Violence Free Crisis Line described the abused woman strangled so brutally a disc in her neck was dislocated and she suffered temporary blindness, who then had to begin filling out custody, housing and parenting forms just two hours after her attack.

These agencies offer assistance to low income people with legal questions, and often they can point the way to solutions that don’t require court action. But everyone in the room acknowledged that directing someone to the proper forms is no substitute for the representation of an attorney. And with an economy poised to enter a recession, many of these organizations, which are funded by grants or government, fear they could see a decrease in resources in 2009.

Kandy Satterlee staffs the Flathead office of the state Supreme Court Self-Help Law Program, which opened Jan. 7 of this year with one-time funding from the 2007 Legislature. With offices in Kalispell and Billings, it has served 2,420 people as of Oct. 21 by providing legal resources and advice on options for those with questions. The Flathead branch alone has served 1,097 valley residents, and more than half of those people are dealing with family issues like divorce, custody and child support.

Lawmakers have indicated the upcoming Legislature will be a “belt tightening” session, so it’s unclear how a program like Self-Help Law will fare in terms of funding, but at the forum, Satterlee indicated where people unaware of this service go for legal advice instead, and where they might have to go if the program’s funding is slashed.

“Sadly, there are people who don’t know about us, and they’re going to the Internet and Googling, ‘divorce,’” she said.