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Future of Access to Justice Commission in question

By: Eric Heisig//August 28, 2013//

Future of Access to Justice Commission in question

By: Eric Heisig//August 28, 2013//

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Money is running out for the Access to Justice Commission, a Wisconsin Supreme Court-mandated group tasked with advocating for legal services for indigent people.

When the commission was formed in 2009 by state Supreme Court rule, the State Bar provided $300,000 to get the nonprofit group through its first three years. By being “very frugal” in its spending, the commission still has about $100,000 left, Treasurer Hannah Dugan said.

State Bar Executive Director George Brown told commission President Gregg Moore in February that the bar won’t put more money into the group’s account.

Without more money, Moore said, “there’s no clear answer” on whether the commission can continue to operate beyond June 30, which is when the remaining money is anticipated to dry up.

Moore said Brown did not say why the State Bar would not provide more money for the commission, but he said it’s fairly well known that the bar is struggling financially.

State Bar officials did not return multiple inquiries for comment.

The commission budgets between $70,000 and $80,000 each year for its expenses, Dugan said, although it routinely does not use all the money. For the fiscal year, she said, $49,888 was allocated for the commission’s out-of pocket expenses, such as travel. More money is used to pay for the time State Bar liaison Jeff Brown puts into working on commission business.

Moore said he is looking for grants to help pay for some of the commission’s costs going forward. He approached the state courts system this year to help pay for the commission’s expenses, but the 2013-15 state budget Gov. Scott Walker signed June 30 included an $11.8 million cut to the system and no money for the commission.

“Things might, from the state court perspective, look better come [2015],” Moore said. “We are seeing what we can do between now and then.”

The commission’s financial struggles come at a turbulent time for indigent legal services supporters. The state’s budget has no money allocated for legal services, a major blow to the commission and bar, which lobbied to include $3 million to help indigent clients.

Moore said the commission is still working on proposals that will further their cause. A proposed change to the state’s judicial code, designed to help judges deal with an increasing number of people who represent themselves, is expected to be discussed at the commission’s Sept. 6 meeting.

He said the commission wants to reach out to other businesses to help pay for legal service programs across the state.

But without money to pay a State Bar liaison, the remaining all-volunteer commission would be in a difficult position, Moore said.

“If neither the State Bar nor the courts can, in the next year or two, figure out a model where they have some professional staff support,” he said, “it’s hard for me to imagine how the commission would continue.”

 — Follow Eric on Twitter

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