An influx of money from pro hac vice fees will allow Wisconsin’s Access to Justice Commission Inc. to continue its work, but questions remain about its future viability.
Since its inception in 2009, the commission has been paid for through a $300,000 State Bar reserve. That money only was meant to last three years, but the commission stretched it out nearly twice as long. It is expected to run out in July 2015.
Under a change approved Tuesday by the state Supreme Court, pro hac vice fees soon will spike to $250 per case, a $200 increase from the current $50. Of the extra money generated, an estimated $40,000 a year will go to the commission. That amount is about $10,000 less than the yearly budget from which it currently operates.
“We’re pretty confident we can make $40,000 work,” commission President Jim Gramling said, “if we can find a way to keep the State Bar as part of this picture.”
It’s not clear, though, if the bar will provide any more money for the commission once its reserve runs out.
Bar President Patrick Fiedler said he did not recall any discussions regarding the bar’s involvement after the reserve runs out. Bar spokeswoman Andrea Gage did not immediately provide more information.
Under the new rule increasing pro hac vice fees – which is expected to be drafted in the coming weeks – the commission will receive $50 of each $250 fee, and the Office of Lawyer Regulation and Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation Inc., which provides grants for indigent client service providers, each will receive $100. Previously, all pro hac vice application money went to the OLR.
Court Commissioner Julie Rich told the justices Tuesday that the increase would put Wisconsin at roughly the same level as other states with application fees. Gramling pointed out that $250 is about the amount that an attorney would bill a client per hour.
Gramling and the commission, in an April 23 letter, asked the court to increase the fee to $350, and for $25 of that to go to the commission. With the end of the reserve money looming, the commission was looking for a way to cover its future administrative costs.
Gramling said Wednesday that he was surprised how quickly the justices approved the increase. He said he thought the court would hold a public hearing for the rules petition to raise the fee, which was introduced by the OLR in July, before deciding how to divvy up the money.
“I’ve been looking forward to the pro hac vice petition getting out of the starting block,” Gramling said. “I didn’t realize it would get out of the starting blocks and finish in one fell swoop.”
Annual costs currently covered by money from the bar’s reserve pay for the commission’s travel and administrative costs, as well as the time bar pro bono coordinator Jeff Brown and his assistant spend working on the commission. Gramling said he hasn’t “seriously thought about going ahead without Jeff’s support.”
“I can’t imagine we would be able to function at any reasonable level without him,” he said.
The bar also provides other services – such as information technology and bookkeeping services – free of charge.
“If the bar would continue to do that that,” Gramling said, “combined with the pro hac vice fees, we’d be in a good position to maintain our current level of activity.”
He said he and other members of the commission still are going to push, however, to get money for the commission put into the court’s next biennial budget.
Still, Gramling said Tuesday’s fee decision was “a great result for the commission.”
The application fee also will provide WisTAF a much-needed boost in revenue. The organization receives a good portion of its revenue from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts funds. However, due to low interest rates and the economic downturn, that stream has not provided as much as years past.
In addition, the state also cut out money for civil legal services in its last biennial budget.
WisTAF finance committee member Nick Zales said he was glad the courts allocated the money the way it did, and said it would help offset some of the group’s losses.
WisTAF Executive Director De Ette Tomlinson and board President Joel Bailey did not immediately return phone calls Tuesday.
OLR Director Keith Sellen said the estimated extra $40,000 his organization now will receive every year will ensure that it is fully funded in years to come. He wrote a letter in January, on behalf of the Board of Administrative Oversight, requesting that all the money from a potential fee increase go toward the OLR. Still, he said Wednesday that he supported the court’s decision and appreciates the increase in funding. Follow @eheisigWLJ