On her first day at the Madison-based Community Justice Inc., Seep Paliwal knew she belonged there.
One of the telltale signs was that they showed her how to set up her Outlook email not just so that she could send messages to her colleagues, but so she could enter information concerning the court appearances she’d be making in her cases.
“I always thought I would have to earn my way into doing this work,” Paliwal said. “And here they are letting me pretty much do it right away. I owe a lot to Community Justice Inc. for giving me the resources and support to do this work.”
At Community Justice Inc., Paliwal, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 2015, represents clients who could not otherwise afford legal representation.
“I get to work with a community that’s really underserved in terms of access to legal representation,” she said. “That means that often I am dealing with some difficult, complex cases, but I am also providing a service where people are just excited that there’s someone there who understands the law.”
One of Paliwal’s accomplishments in her short time at Community Justice Inc. is heading the development of the Municipal Defense Project, which helps the homeless respond to municipal tickets, keeping them out of jail and out of debt. Paliwal not only takes some cases herself but also supervises lawyers and law students that provide representation for the project.
Sometimes the project’s cases involve representing a client in court. Other times, it means working with the city attorney and a client to reach an agreement. Paliwal built up the project over time, reaching out to more and more of the parties involved.
“I think Seep has really been remarkable and her care and work on this project has been outstanding,” said Dane County Municipal Court Judge Daniel Koval.
Koval, who sees thousands of cases each year, noted that that in many jurisdictions, municipal court cases are very similar to criminal cases. For example, Madison’s municipal ordinances mirror the state’s criminal misdemeanor statutes.
“(Defendants without financial means to hire a lawyer) are forced to deal with these issues and have a trial by themselves,” he said. “It’s really been a godsend to a lot of the defendants that I see.”
But Paliwal isn’t satisfied with one job well done — she’s started a second project that sprung naturally from the Municipal Defense Project. The new venture centers on foreclosure defense.
Paliwal said the idea came from the realization that, in some instances, homelessness can be prevented from happening in the first place.
“When you’re here to provide services for a low-income population, it’s not enough to say, ‘We can do this, but we can’t do that,’” said Paliwal. “You start thinking, ‘How can I address this issue, too?’”