HELENA – All seven current justices of the Montana Supreme Court, along with eight retired members, are calling on Congress to continue funding two groups that help provide legal aid for people who can’t afford it.
The justices sent a letter this week to U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, asking them to support maintaining current funding levels for the Legal Services Corporation and the Corporation for National and Community Service. President Trump’s budget proposal, released last month, eliminates federal money for both agencies.
The Legal Services Corporation funds civil legal aid for almost 2 million low-income Americans. That can include help with everything from divorces and parenting plans to evictions, bankruptcies and debt collection.
Unlike in criminal cases, there’s no constitutional guarantee of legal representation for people involved in civil disputes.
In this state, the Montana Legal Services Association provides free help with civil law issues for Montanans who can’t afford an attorney. LSC grants provide 42 percent of the association’s annual budget.
Even now, MLSA has to turn away about half of the people seeking their services.
“If we lost 42 percent of our funding, we would be able to see 3,000 fewer Montanans every year,” said Michelle Potts, MLSA’s director of strategic focus and development.
The Corporation for National and Community Service supports service programs around the U.S., including AmeriCorps. In Montana, the loss of that funding could mean the end of eight AmeriCorps programs. The justices’ letter specifically pointed to the Justice for Montanans program. It gives tens of thousands of people who can’t afford attorneys information so they can navigate the court system themselves.
A study commissioned by MLSA found 33,000 low-income households in Montana had at least one civil law need. More than three-quarters of those problems went unaddressed because people didn’t have the means to hire an attorney.
Potts says when people who need civil law help don’t receive it, they essentially have to do without justice.
“They get evicted, or they lose their benefits, or they stay in abusive relationships where they and their children are harmed, because they can’t navigate the system on their own,” she said.
The Supreme Court justices argue that these programs keep Montana’s court system running smoothly.
“The plain truth is that MLSA and AmeriCorps’ Justice For Montanans Program are an incredibly effective use of a small amount of federal dollars that deliver results to Montana everyday,” their letter said. “Our justice system depends on them, as partners with the courts, the private bar, and non-profit community organizations to address the demands on Montana courts and to achieve our Nation’s promise of Justice for All.”