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Legally Speaking


Issue: February, 2009
Author: Walter Eggers

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Access to Justice Commissions in Wyoming’s Neighborhood

With the creation of its new Access to Justice Commission, Wyoming joins a majority of states across the country with organizations devoted to improving the availability of civil legal services for the poor. Twenty-seven states and Puerto Rico have active Access to Justice Commissions, while several other states’ bar associations have committees focusing on civil legal services.

Several states in Wyoming’s region have created successful Commissions. The Wyoming Access to Justice Task Force studied the work of those Commissions and based its proposal for the Wyoming Commission in part on the structure of Commissions in other states.

Bob Echols, State Support Consultant with the American Bar Association’s Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives, recently commented on the importance of Commissions in the Rocky Mountain area:

It’s in the states facing the biggest challenges that Access to Justice Commissions can make the biggest difference. We have seen that happen in states in the Rocky Mountain West, as well as the Deep South. Mobilizing the organized bar and the courts in some of these states has already had a major impact on access to justice for low-income people. Montana and New Mexico, in particular, offer great models for Wyoming, because they share many of the same problems and have found creative ways to address them.

Below are brief descriptions of Commissions in Montana, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.

Montana Equal Justice Task Force
The Montana Supreme Court issued an order in August 2000 creating the Montana Equal Justice Task Force. The Supreme Court required the Task Force to:

  • conduct a legal needs study of low- and moderate-income Montanans;
  • provide long-range integrated planning among the state’s legal assistance providers;
  • coordinate civil access to justice; and
  • work to secure adequate funding for civil access to justice.

The Montana Supreme Court appointed nine members of the Task Force, and those nine members appointed six additional Task Force members.

Over the past eight years, the Montana Task Force has helped increase funding for the state’s IOLTA funds grantor, conducted legal aid surveys, and drafted legal needs reports for the state.

New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice
The New Mexico Supreme Court issued an order on May 28, 2004, establishing the Commission on Access to Justice. There are 18 members of the New Mexico Commission appointed by the New Mexico Supreme Court, State Bar, Governor, House of Representatives, Senate and the state’s law school. The Commission is chaired by the State Bar leader and a Supreme Court Justice.

The New Mexico Commission is a “statewide body dedicated to expanding and improving civil legal assistance to New Mexicans living in poverty. The Commission goals include expanding resources, increasing public awareness through communication and message development, encouraging more pro bono work by attorneys, and improving training and technology.”

In 2006, the New Mexico Commission developed a ten-point plan for improving access to justice. The ten points outlined in the plan were divided into three areas: 1) involvement of the judiciary; 2) change to the Rules of Professional Conduct; and 3) expansion of pro bono participation by New Mexico attorneys. The Plan also outlined a structure of local access to justice committees around the state.

One year after drafting the ten-point plan, the Commission developed its 2007 Annual Report, which included the 2007 State Plan for Providing Civil Legal Aid to Low Income New Mexicans. The New Mexico Supreme Court approved and adopted the State Plan. The State Plan addressed local access to justice committees throughout the state and recommended measures to promote assistance for pro se litigants.

The New Mexico Commission helped obtain a $2,500,000 appropriation from the New Mexico Legislature for state funding of civil legal aid. This significant funding increase resulted from a series of hearings that the Commission held around the state and a report that the Commission prepared for the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Colorado Access to Justice Commission
In 2003, the Colorado Supreme Court, the state’s Bar Association and Colorado’s Statewide Legal Services Group formed the Colorado Access to Justice Commission.

The Commission is comprised of 20 members. The Colorado Supreme Court appointed four members and the Bar Association appointed ten members. The other six members were appointed by the Colorado Legal Services organization, the Colorado Lawyer Trust Account Foundation, the Legal Aid Foundation, the Governor’s office, the Speaker of the State House of Representatives, and the President of Colorado Senate. The Commission members serve three-year terms and receive administrative support from the Colorado Bar Association staff.

The Commission’s mission is to:
develop, coordinate and implement policy initiatives to expand access to and enhance the quality of justice in civil legal matters for persons who encounter barriers in gaining access to Colorado’s civil justice system.

The Colorado Commission coordinates the efforts of local Access to Justice Committees in various Colorado districts. The Commission has held hearings around the state and has worked to promote pro bono representation by establishing a pro bono policy and recognition program for Colorado lawyers and firms.

Utah Access to Justice Council
In 1997, the Utah Access to Justice Task Force issued a report on the status of civil legal services for low-income people in the state. In 1999, based on the report, Utah started a fundraising effort for legal services called “And Justice For All.” In 2007, the Utah Supreme Court, the Utah Bar Foundation, and the fundraising group “And Justice For All” formed the Utah Access to Justice Council.

The Utah Council defined its role and charge as follows:
The Council is established in recognition of the need to expand access to civil legal representation for people of low to modest means. There should be a specific focus on barriers faced by individuals with disabilities, ethnic and racial minorities, rural residents and the elderly.

The Utah Supreme Court, Utah Bar and legal service providers in the state appoint the Council members.

Commissions in other states provide a good model for Wyoming’s new Access to Justice Commission. Mr. Echols from the ABA’s Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives is optimistic about the Wyoming Commission: “[F]rom what I have seen so far of the engagement of bar and bench leaders in Wyoming, I’m confident that the potential is there to equal [the] achievements” of other Commissions in the region. Hopefully, there will be opportunities for the Wyoming Commission to collaborate with Commissions in other states.

Walter Eggers is a partner in the Cheyenne office of Holland & Hart LLP. He is a member of the Wyoming Access to Justice Task Force.

Copyright © 2009 – Wyoming State Bar