Montana’s most socially conscious lawyers, judges, paralegals, and law students could all be found in the same room last week. In the midst of the Montana State Bar meeting in Missoula, nearly 100 people were drawn to a conference at the University of Montana Law School on providing legal services for low income Montanans.
The tragedy and chaos of the past week—which stranded the keynote speaker in Seattle—provided a point of reflection and inspiration.
“This has been a trying and horrifying, sad and angering week in this country,” said Karla Gray, chief justice of the Montana State Supreme Court. “But as persons interested in the finest system of justice the world has ever known, there is no better time to stand up and be counted and recommit to that highest institutional ideal of equal access to justice for all of those who need it.”
The organizers were keenly aware that even the world’s finest legal system has its faults. Justice is hindered in Montana by the state’s weak economy, said Mary Helen McNeal, University of Montana law professor and chair of the state Supreme Court’s Equal Justice task force.
“The population is poor and the resources are limited,” she said. While many people never have to bother with a lawyer until it comes time to draw up a will or divorce a spouse, the approximately 135,000 impoverished Montanans deal constantly with questionable landlords, loan sharks, shady businesses, and public assistance networks, all of which can be complex at best and predatory at worst. And all of which make legal help a necessity.
Montana has a state agency—the Montana Legal Services Association—that provides legal services to the poor. The agency has become strained in recent years as federal funding has dropped. In 1990, the association had one lawyer on staff for every 6,714 impoverished Montanans. By 2000, staff cuts and an increasing poverty rate had widened the gap to one out of 12,000.
The conference also considered the role of lawyers who do not work exclusively with the disadvantaged. Judy Williams, coordinator for Montana’s Pro Bono Project, said that about one quarter of the state’s lawyers participated in last year’s project to represent indigent people with civil legal problems at no charge.
“That’s actually a great statistic. Nationwide the average is about 15 percent,” she said. “We think we’re doing well but we could be doing a lot better.”