Access to Justice Commission’s report reads like a mission statement

The Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission’s new report says many interesting things about the state’s civil legal system.

Most of them, though, aren’t surprising, and shouldn’t be for anyone who has kept up with the issue.

The report, titled “The State of Equal Justice in Wisconsin,” was released Monday on the State Bar’s website. It comes in the wake of six public hearings the bar-funded commission held across the state to hear about the need for legal representation for the poor.

Not surprisingly, the report paints Wisconsin’s outlook as fairly bleak. And why wouldn’t it? The current budget has no money for civil legal services. The money generated by interest from lawyers’ trust accounts is continuously shrinking as rates stay low.

“People became less able to pay for lawyers, and the demand for legal services in areas of fundamental need – including employment, governmental benefits, and housing – increased at exactly the same time that funding for those same services decreased,” according to the report.

The report outlines what some of the 137 judges, lawyers, residents and advocates said during their hearings. And a few things popped out:

  • There is a big need in Wisconsin for attorneys who can help residents obtain government and unemployment benefits.
  • Nonlawyer advocates, such as domestic violence advocates, can considerably help those who need help with the legal system.
  • Expanding mediation programs may mean ensuring justice for many.

But very few things jumped out and surprised me. I knew that those who represent themselves in court often place a large burden on a court system that is supposed to help them as much as they can. And I knew that civil legal services advocates say that expanding pro bono work and justice centers will save money for the judicial system in the long run.

But I also know that I may be in the minority with this.

I learned an a lot about the commission and its goals while working on a piece I did for October’s issue of the Law Journal. And commission members have said they want this report to circulate far beyond the legal community, so the general public can know learn more about the issue.

More than anything, the report reads as a commission’s mission statement. The commission was tasked with identifying problems and facilitating ways to reduce them, and that’s exactly what they do with this report.

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