Increasing Access to Justice Takes a Village and an Arsenal

By Judy Meadows, Montana State Law Librarian and Co-Chair, Montana Commission on Self-Represented LitigantsThe Montana Commission on Self-Represented Litigants, created in 2000 by order of the Montana Supreme Court, has worked to create and approve easy to use forms for pro ses, as well as explanations of how to proceed in court. We have partnered with Montana Legal Services in this effort. We also have done extensive training of clerks of court and public librarians on how to find the forms and how to make appropriate referrals.Several years ago the Commission started discussing the importance of having a continuum of services available to individuals and families who could not afford to pay the full fee an attorney. It is obvious that many of our citizens cannot represent themselves, as they lack the background and intellectual capacity to go it alone. Having the best forms available from a website is no help to someone who cannot read or take the time to read, the instructions! Therefore, we need to have a range of services – with self help centers, free electronic forms and websites on one end of the spectrum, and full representation, through pro bono work and Montana Legal Services’ attorneys — on the other. And that’s a very good start. Our Bar is really stepping up to the plate with its pro bono participation.We now have two other tools in our basket, and they fill the middle of the range of services we need to have. Limited scope representation is a very important tool, and can be used in conjunction with the other resources mentioned. For example, someone could be comfortable in downloading and printing the forms for a parenting plan, but doesn’t understand how to conduct the service of process, or is afraid of what might happen in the courtroom. The petitioner might have $250 available, to pay an attorney to help with one of these matters, but will find and fill out of the forms herself. We also hope that pro bono attorneys will use our forms.Montana’s modest means program is also in the middle of our continuum. It allows people of “modest means” to be offered legal services from private attorneys for at least half of what would normally be charged. Eligibility for both this program and pro bono services is run through MLSA; by doing so the participating attorney is covered for malpractice insurance.We have come a long way in the past ten years in providing access to justice in Montana. We have many groups working on improving and extending the continuum of services that I’ve mentioned. We are trying to make working with the self-represented easier for our courts, as well as making it easier for our Main Street shop owners, the employers of small enterprises, and those desperate families who need help to get it. Justice was never intended just for the well-informed and the well-paid – it is for everyone. It is for every Montanan that we work to improve and extend these resources!