Professor Marsha Mansfield of the University of Wisconsin Law School says that a weak economy, combined with cuts in government services, has left as many as 154,000 low-income Wisconsin households to contend with legal troubles without representation.
Equal access to justice is an issue that concerns the whole community, not just the court system, Mansfield says. "People should care as much about their neighborhood’s legal health as they do about its medical or environmental health."
Mansfield, the director of the Law School's Economic Justice Institute, serves on the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission, which is tasked with expanding access to basic civil legal services for those who can't afford them. The commission was created by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2009.
Unlike criminal defendants, who have a constitutional right to counsel, the courts rarely appoint attorneys for civil litigants. For some the stakes are high, resulting in people losing their homes or custody of their children. "A lack of access to legal advice or advocacy can have catastrophic consequences that are far more costly than the provision of legal aid at the outset," Mansfield says.
Additionally, the high volume of unrepresented litigants, who are often unfamiliar with court procedures, makes the court system less efficient by slowing down proceedings significantly.
Along with Mansfield, UW Law alumni Hannah Dugan '87, Maurice Rice '66, and Margaret Vergeront '75 serve on the commission's 17-member governing board. Last year, it held hearings in six regions around the state to identify legal needs and explore possible solutions.
Part of the solution lies in raising public awareness about the issues, Mansfield says. The commission is also examining ways to streamline court services, develop new resources, and preserve and restore legislative funding for civil legal services.
The UW Law School can help, too, she adds. "The Law School is a huge part of the puzzle, because our clinical programs allow for flexibility and creativity in our approach to community service. In the supportive environment of a clinic, students learn to problem solve and advocate on their clients' behalf. At the same time, litigants benefit from our students’ energy, passion and knowledge."
Submitted by Law School News on February 1, 2013
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