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Representation for indigent clients on slow path

For the first time in recent memory, advocates for expanding civil legal services for indigent clients in Wisconsin want the Legislature to study the effects it would have on the state.

Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission President Jim Gramling, in a letter to the Supreme Court, said the justices should consider recommending asking the Legislature to appoint a study committee to “examine the costs, benefits, scope, and revenue options with regard to the appointment of counsel for low-income individuals in civil cases involving basic human needs.” In an interview, he said it’s clear the state’s Supreme Court has been reluctant to put money in its budget for appointed counsel, even if it seems to support the idea.

The letter came as a response to the lack of attention the Supreme Court has given to a rules petition put forth by former Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc. Executive Director John Ebbott that proposed a pilot program to study how a judge could and would appoint counsel for those who need them in civil cases. The pilot project would take place in Jefferson County, as two judges there have volunteered to participate.

“The court doesn’t seem inclined to put the money in its budget to conduct a pilot project,” Gramling said. “Given everything we thought … a study committee seemed to be appropriate way to do it.”

The petition was put forth in September 2013, though the courts have held little discussion about it in its open conferences. Gramling, in an interview, said the justices may consider it when they review the Access to Justice Commission’s progress, though he did not know when that would be.

The court’s next rules conference is Nov. 17; an agenda has not been released.

Gramling said he didn’t have a timetable for such a request. If it happened in a Legislative Council study committee, for example, the issue wouldn’t be addressed for nearly a year and a half, as there are several committees gearing up to make recommendations for the 2015-17 biennial budget.

But, he said, the commission is “hopeful that the Legislature will understand the importance of funding this separate from anyone else.”

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson did not immediately return a phone call Monday.

Even if the Supreme Court granted the petition, though, it’s also unclear who in Jefferson County would participate. He said Judges William Hue and Jennifer Weston, who both agreed to participate in the pilot project, are rotating their duties and may not be able to handle the type of cases a pilot project would affect.

In addition, the court’s requests for its 2015-17 biennial budget contains no money for civil legal services and no money earmarked for any pilot project. However, Abrahamson’s letter with her budget requests mentions that “Wisconsin is one of only a few states that do not provide some level of state funding” for indigent civil clients. It also states that “we urge you to reinstate funding for civil legal services in the [next] budget.”

Still, Gramling acknowledged that the court is already struggling to get the money it needs to maintain its operations, and that such a request may be difficult. He said some questions, such as how appointing counsel would affect county budgets, have still not been addressed, even if the pilot program and appointing counsel is a good idea.

“The justices all favor the idea, but they are reluctant to act without a better understanding of how it would be funded in general,” Gramling said.

To be sure, any work the commission and other civil legal services advocates in Wisconsin have done has been slow in the past few years, and not without its setbacks. The Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker approved a budget in 2011 that zeroed out the money for civil legal services in Wisconsin. No money was put back in 2013, and less money from other services, such as interest on the Lawyers Trust Accounts and Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation Inc., has been available since the recession.

Even the commission, a court-created group designed to facilitate and coordinate legal services for the state, has had trouble finding money, though the court’s recent decision to hike pro hac vice fees meant the commission has a dedicated source of revenue to pay for its operations.

Both Gramling and Ebbott’s successor at Legal Action, David Pifer, said they were not surprised by the lack of money for civil legal services in the budget requests. But the lack of it is concerning, Pifer said, since other states are starting to realize how valuable appointed counsel in civil cases can be to the system as a whole.

“I think it’s also true that Wisconsin is simply going to fall behind what is a trend nationally,” Pifer said.


About Eric Heisig

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