Friday, March 26, 2010

Wyoming Takes 1st Step Towards a Civil Gideon

Legal Services Funding bill aids low-income citizens

by Carol Crump
Thursday, March 18, 2010 5:08 PM MDT

The images of the people that showed up at the five Access to Justice Commission public hearings last year have stayed with Wyoming Supreme Court Justice E. James Burke. Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s signature on March 11 on HB61, Legal Services Funding, was the necessary first step to do something about those images.

The task the Wyoming Supreme Court, in cooperation with the Wyoming Bar Association, gave to the commission that Burke chaired was to evaluate the specific legal needs of low- and moderate-income people in Wyoming, and figure out how to address those needs. According to a letter of support for the bill from the governor, conservative estimates are that 75,000 in Wyoming live in extremely low poverty. National estimates are that at least 80 percent in that group who have a civil legal issue will not be able to get help.

In 2009, Wyoming and Idaho were the only two states in the nation that didn’t have a specific appropriation to directly support general, civil legal aid for low income individuals. The law that goes into effect on July 1 will put Wyoming in line with the rest of the nation by providing legal services statewide for the tens of thousands of Wyoming people who can’t afford the legal services they need.

The executive summary of the Wyoming Access to Justice Commission’s report compiled for the governor and legislature after five public hearings held around the state from July to November last year defined those who need help getting legal services in Wyoming. According to the information provided by the public, attorneys, human services and nonprofit agencies and legal services clients, they are the elderly or disabled, struggling with Social Security and Medicare, guardianship or a will. They are families living in substandard housing or families struggling with medical bills because they lost their jobs and health insurance during the recession. They are young mothers, caught in domestic violence situations, who need help with protection orders, divorce or custody proceedings. And they are children, who may simply need protection.

The funding for a still to be defined legal services program will come from a simple $10 fee tacked onto each court case filed in the state. Patterned after a fee that is already in place for court technology, the new fee is expected to generate $1 million to $1.5 million each year. The bill that was passed will have no impact on the state general fund; the new program will be paid for equally from all criminal and civil cases filed in district, circuit and municipal courts.

Prior to the bill’s passage, there was no viable statewide program for legal services for the indigent for civil cases like the public defender system provides in criminal cases. Legal Aid of Wyoming receives $700,000 in federal funding each year, but the money was not enough for a viable statewide program, Burke told Wyoming Public Radio when the money started to coming to Wyoming last August.

As the bill became law, the next step n how to provide legal services n will be the most crucial, said 7th District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl, who is one of the local representatives on the 18-member Access to Justice Commission, along with attorney Stuart Day and Natrona County District Court Clerk Gen Tuma.

The courts will begin collecting the additional $10 filing fee in July. By September, Burke hopes to have a plan for how best to utilize the funds that will be part of the Supreme Court’s budget. By November, the law requires a plan to be ready for the Wyoming legislature, which will authorize spending.

“This was the necessary first step,” Burke said. “We’ll put the funds to good use.” services

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