How does legal aid work in other jurisdictions? LAO asked the Montana Legal Services Association for its perspective.
By Alison Paul
Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) began with gusto in 1966, a year after U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the “War on Poverty.”
At its peak some years later, MLSA employed 39 attorneys in 14 locations. But due to devastating losses of funding from the U.S. government for civil legal aid, MLSA now has only 12 full-time staff attorneys based in three primary offices to serve the civil legal needs of over 150,000 low-income Montanans.
The cuts in funding and staff have demanded that MLSA’s delivery method evolve from a “take-everything-that-walks-in-the-door” philosophy to a more focused and strategic model, the principles of which are summarized below.
Prioritization of legal issues for advice and representation
MLSA has found that the key to providing quality civil legal aid with fewer resources is to prioritize certain legal issues for advice and representation, while handling other issues through information, forms, and referral.
Prioritization allows MLSA attorneys to focus on complex “impact” cases where a positive resolution has significant impact not only for the client receiving the services, but also to all similarly situated people.
This focus drives change in practices of current and potential adverse parties so that advocates are not forced to redress the same issues repeatedly. Further, it allows advocates to grow their expertise, which results in more effective and efficient advice and representation in complex cases.
Prioritization also means that legal information and referrals are provided to clients with less complex cases, whether they represent themselves, or eventually receive assistance from a pro bono attorney.
Tools for self-represented litigants
In addition to advice and representation in prioritized issue areas, MLSA provides quality civil legal aid for non-priority issues through tools for self-represented litigants it has developed over the years.
Such tools help thousands more Montanans with civil legal issues than MLSA’s small staff ever could. They allow MLSA to focus resources on matters too complex for self-represented litigants to handle themselves.
Partnerships provide “smart” referrals to MLSA and partners, resulting in benefits such as legal outreach and education for everyone.
MLSA has developed partnerships with nonprofit and governmental social service organizations, health organizations, courts and court projects such as the Montana Access to Justice Commission, libraries, and the State Bar of Montana.
These partnerships run the gamut from formal arrangements (with project plans, memorandums of understanding, and sometimes even shared budgets) to informal arrangements.
Collaboration with partners has resulted in better information exchanges and coordination, including referrals that are more appropriate to MLSA. Consequently, staff time spent responding to requests for help regarding issues that MLSA does not handle is reduced, freeing up time to manage issues that MLSA does handle.
Further, often partners bring impact issues to the attention of MLSA, allowing MLSA to respond quickly to them.
Partners in advocacy
Also, often partners provide clients with general advocacy or support regarding problems, which compounds MLSA’s ability to focus primarily on the legal aspects of such problems. For example, a credit counseling agency might provide information to a client on how to save money for emergencies. This could allow MLSA to concentrate solely on that client’s legal dispute with a creditor a dispute which may have arisen when the client had no money to pay for an emergency.
MLSA has trained community partners and created a network of “lay advocates” who use their knowledge to provide legal information and resources to their clients. This helps reduce the number of referrals these partners would otherwise make to MLSA to provide the same information and resources.
For example, MLSA has trained many librarians in Montana on where to find family law forms that will be accepted by Montana courts, thus minimizing the number of patrons who need to contact MLSA for that information.
Finally, partnerships with pro bono programs and individual pro bono attorneys expand the services MLSA provides, not only for general legal information and referrals, but also for legal advice and representation.
MLSA currently helps facilitate nine volunteer attorney programs and works with many more individual pro bono attorneys. Such partnerships are invaluable in allowing MLSA—through volunteer attorneys—to provide quality services on the issues that demand more than legal information and referral, often on issues that MLSA is unable to handle because of conflicts or because the subject matter is outside MLSA’s expertise.
Change is hard and MLSA has had its share of growing pains and criticism during its evolution.
But after many years, we can happily say that our growth has been a benefit to our clients. Recent surveys have resulted in client feedback such as:
- “The advice I received was very helpful. The advice I received helped me to understand what options I had and what to do next.”
- “I left a bit let down when I was told I wouldn’t get an attorney even though I qualify. However, I understand your situation as well & you taught me how to do something legally by myself. I love to learn.”
- “Precise information and follow up excellent. Your advice helped me get my water back on only after I sent your letter stating issues.”
Furthermore, MLSA services continue to positively benefit Montana in general. A recent study of MLSA’s economic impact shows that for every dollar MLSA spent on providing civil legal services in 2013, $3.15 flowed into Montana.
Despite the growing pains and criticism of MLSA’s evolution, the numbers don’t lie. MLSA continues to provide quality legal aid to clients and overall benefits to others through willingness to innovate and move forward through challenges, and it will continue to do so.
- MontanaLawHelp.org. This general legal information website focuses on topic areas of concern to low-to-middle income Montanans, and provides basic information about the legal system and substantive legal issues, along with information about courts, social service agencies, and free and low-cost legal assistance across the state.
- MLSA and the Montana court system have developed forms for self-represented litigants on issue areas such as family law, consumer matters, housing, and domestic violence, allowing hundreds more to file and/or respond to those types of cases than MLSA staff can address individually.
The forms, which are interactive and also available in hard copy, provide instructions and resources for additional help. In 2013, self-represented litigants clicked on close to 8,000 hard copy forms hosted on www.MontanaLawHelp.org. Further, self-represented litigants used MLSA’s interactive forms to create over 400 legal documents.
- Other projects. Recent MLSA projects for self-represented litigants include instructional/informational videos on consumer issues, an interactive tutorial on filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and a now-in-development self-represented client child support calculator.
These tools also provide the amount of legal information many self-represented litigants need to successfully represent themselves in court, far beyond the assistance MLSA could provide if attempting to provide such information directly to individual clients.
Alison Paul is the executive director of MLSA.