Community members and judicial officials agreed Wednesday that crisis and the civil court system often intersect in a way that leaves poor Montanans confused, afraid and underrepresented in the legal system.
The Montana Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission hosted a listening panel of state and local officials at Flathead Valley Community College, where community partners told about the problems that face their clients and possible solutions to the complex issues.
“Many people don’t realize that you can lose your children in a court case without having a right to an attorney,” said Alison Paul, executive director of the Montana Legal Services Association. She was referring to the fact that the U.S. Constitution requires a public defender be provided in criminal cases, but that no such requirement exists for civil cases. The association provided pro bono services to 62 of 343 people who requested help last year, Paul said.
Paul said a recent survey found that 33,000 Montanans had unmet legal needs and that 75 percent of the those people never asked for public assistance in sorting out their problems because they didn’t know how to access services or could not afford them.
A lack of resources can have a tremendous impact on the outcome of a person’s case, said Hilary Shaw, executive director of Abbie Shelter.
The shelter helps domestic violence victims in the Flathead Valley.
Shaw said her office has seen an increase in cases where abusers’ public defenders for criminal court will go to their client’s hearing in civil court. Then the abusers end up being represented by attorneys while the abused parties have to represent themselves.
“It’s very intimidating,” Shaw said. “It’s very stressful.”
Justice of the Peace Dan Wilson said he has not seen any case where a public defender has represented a client in a civil proceeding in his courtroom.
Once in court, attorneys and judges often struggle with finding comprehensive solutions to struggles.
“A lot of these people have problems that we as attorneys cannot address,” attorney Kay Lynn Lee said. She devotes much of her time to free or reduced-cost services in family court matters.
In Flathead County, families have better access to some services than people in other parts of the state because there is a fully-staffed Family Court Services department. Many other counties don’t have such extensive services. The office completes parenting evaluations and plans. It affords people the chance to sit down, talk about their issues and come to an amicable solution without a judge having to divide the family unit.
Attorney Mediator Brian Muldoon said he believes that a requirement for mediation could ultimately be a major solution to problems that arise in family court cases. He pointed out that the court system is inherently adversarial and is a good tool for solving clear-cut issues such as property boundaries but is often more inflammatory than helpful in other types of cases.
“What we are dealing with and the things that you’ve heard about are not really disputes,” Muldoon said. “They are conflict. Conflict is a social and interpersonal phenomena. It doesn’t matter what the order of a court is or what legal assistance you provide, it is not going to solve the fact that the ex-husband and ex-wife cannot communicate and work together for the benefit of their children.”
Muldoon suggested that Montana legislators enact a law similar to other states where folks are mandated to try to work out their problems through mediation for six months before they go into a courtroom. Mediation teaches people to communicate and work together instead of taking an adversarial stance, Muldoon said.
“In the course of three, four or five sessions, dynamics typically change dramatically,” Muldoon said.
Suggestions such as Muldoon’s are what Montana Supreme Court Justice James Jeremiah Shea came to hear. The high court wants to take input from the forum’s listening panels across the state over the next year and use it to craft solutions. “It’s a complex issue that does not have an easy solution and that’s why I think it is important to interview the community,” Shea said.
He reminds himself of how scary the legal system can be by remembering how afraid he was to argue his first case.
“I was afraid to stand up because I was absolutely positive that they could see my knees shaking,” Shea said. “I had three years of law school behind me.”
Shea praised the American and Montana justice systems in comparison to those of other countries but said barriers to the system need to be addressed.
“We need to do what we can to provide access, for better or worse,” Shea said.
Reporter Megan Strickland can be reached at 758-4459 or email@example.com.