Montana needs to make its justice system more accessible to all people, especially those who live below the poverty line, according to a Montana State Supreme Court justice.
Justice James Jeremiah Shea and other state and local legal officials participated in the Access to Justice Forum at the Flathead Valley Community College on Oct. 21. The listening session featured presentations from various stakeholders in the region and was the first of a series of community meetings across the state hosted by the Montana State Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission.
“This is a complex issue that does not have a simple solution,” Shea said. “We’re a country of laws, but there are folks for whom the court room doors are closed for whatever reason, and we need to do what we can to provide that access.”
Included on the listening panel were District Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht, Justice of the Peace Daniel Wilson, Flathead County Clerk of Court Peg Allison, state Sen. Bob Keenan, chief legal counsel for the office of the governor Andy Huff, and attorneys and past presidents of the State Bar of Montana Don Murray and Randy Snyder.
Alison Paul, executive director of the Montana Legal Services Association, which is a federally and privately funded program that provides free legal assistance in civil cases for low-income people, said in 2014 more than 7,000 people in Montana sought help from the association, including more than 450 in Flathead County. However, Paul said the association was only able to take on 62 new cases.
“We are under resourced because the federal government gives us money based on population, and since Montana has such a small population we get a smaller piece of the pie,” Paul said. “We use our scarce resources to their maximum ability… But there just isn’t enough.”
Hilary Shaw, executive director of the Abbie Shelter, said there are not enough resources for victims of abuse to navigate the legal system. She added that other advocates have noticed that people accused of partner or family member abuse are rarely prosecuted in this area.
“It is one of the most common calls – one in four woman will be impacted by abuse in their life – and it’s a huge problem but it is rarely prosecuted,” Shaw said. “There should be accountability for offenders. We see the lack of prosecution as an extreme barrier to justice and safety.”
Another population that rarely gets adequate legal representation is seniors, according Susan Kunda, director of the Flathead County Agency on Aging. She said some seniors are victimized and there are few people in the legal system who can stand up to help them.
The forums will be held in seven locations across the state over the next year. Shea said the information gathered at the listening sessions would be used to make recommendations to the 2017 legislature in hopes of resolving some of the issues.