In part of his fourth State of the Judiciary speech held earlier this month, Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath advocated for retaining the statewide Court Help Program, which provides assistance to thousands of people navigating their way through the legal process in civil matters.
McGrath told lawmakers that not all legal matters need attorneys, but there were ways to simplify the legal process and provide people with helpful solutions.
“We also hope that by making the court system more efficient and responsive to the public’s needs, we can avoid coming to you in a future session asking for more judges — something I do not want to do,” McGrath said.
McGrath isn’t alone in supporting the Court Help Program of the Montana Supreme Court, nor in his thinking that the program should be permanently funded. The program is a product of the 2005-2006 Law and Justice Interim Committee and has been funded on a one-time-only basis since fiscal year 2008. Continuation of the program is contingent on funding from the 2015 Legislature.
Its biannual appropriation for 2014-2015 is $649,000, according to the program website, which also states that even if funded permanently, the program's current budget would be insufficient to secure full-time staff while providing a consistent service to the state.
“The program needs to be stabilized. It’s critical to fulfilling the courts’ mission,” said Montana Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker, who supported an estimated $800,000 in permanent program funding as part of House Bill 2. “Our district courts depend on the program. People come to courts without an attorney and they don’t know what they need. It slows down the process.”
The program helps to protect legal rights and helps to ensure efficient court proceedings throughout the state, Baker said.
To date, more than 45,000 people have sought assistance from a self-help court center, according to the program website. Yet the number of litigants representing themselves in court remains a big challenge. In certain types of cases, an average of 53 percent of cases involved at least one of the parties representing themselves; the figure rises to 69 percent in some counties.
User-friendly, plain language legal forms and instructions have been developed to assist self-represent litigants, said Erin Farris-Olsen, the former administrator of the program and current equal justice coordinator for the State Bar of Montana. Forms and instructions for name changes, emancipation, stepparent adoption, modification of parenting plans and landlord tenant actions have been completed and posted on public websites.
Statewide judges have helped to develop pro bono programs for low-income people throughout the state, Farris said. In 2013, 157,463 hours -- or more than $19 million in legal work -- was provided by licensed attorneys pro bono or at a reduced fee, according to the program website.
The University Of Montana School Of Law has assisted in developing a pro bono program to assist veterans with disability benefits claims before the Veterans’ Affairs Board, Baker said. The State Law Library has worked to provide libraries with tools, training and support to assist users experiencing legal problems.
A partnership with Montana Legal Service Association has more than tripled the service capacity through the addition of seven AmeriCorps service volunteers based in six centers in Flathead, Missoula, Gallatin, Cascade, Lewis and Clark and Yellowstone counties, according to the program website. Rural services are provided by appointment or office hours.
Surveys reveal customer satisfaction relating to the 2013-2014 AmeriCorps year: 92 percent said the center helped them to understand their legal rights and 85 percent said they felt more prepared to handle their legal situation, according to survey results on the program’s website.
“It’s a program that sells itself,” Baker said.
Jim Tafflan, the program administrator, could not be reached for comment.