Many poor, elderly and homeless residents of “Big Sky Country” report feeling that they have nowhere to turn for help with legal problems. They fear the court system and don’t know how to access services.
A year-long series of public forums held by the Montana Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission asked Montanans about the legal challenges they face and how they are faring. An article in the Billings (MT) Gazette, “Legal problems mount for most vulnerable, Supreme Court commission finds,” reports that the most vulnerable citizens in legal crisis with housing, domestic violence, debt and parenting and custody disputes, often have underlying problems that contribute to their situation.
The forums, held in seven towns across the state, found that poor to moderate income earners, homeless, Native Americans, veterans, seniors, domestic violence victims, children and the disabled felt the additional burden of feeling fearful of the court system itself.
Mental illness, substance abuse, threats to well-being and a lack of transportation can intensify legal problems. These issues exacerbate already challenging circumstances. An inability to access services can turn many civil legal problems into criminal legal problems, which are only made worse by an inability to access programs and services, the commission found.
The report also found that there’s only one statewide organization that concentrates on addressing the legal needs of Montana’s 148,000 disabled. Those with disabilities face challenges such as abuse and neglect; a lack of access to programs, facilities, and mental health services; employment discrimination and education needs, as well as housing issues.
The report also explained that Montana is seeing a rising need in elder law, with the report noting that the number of people age 65 and older has increased 21% from 2000 to 2010, with many living in rural areas. In addition, seniors are susceptible to all types of scams and can have healthcare issues that cause them severe financial challenges. Many of the elderly can’t use services online and have no access to legal aid organizations or volunteer attorney programs. The report also found that veterans and children under age 18 without parents or guardians have difficulty within the legal system.
The resulting recommendations made by the commission include developing a statewide inventory of services and programs available in each area of the state and a way for people who need help to connect with the services. It also recommended funding a continuum of services, from self-help programs to legal aid, along with mediation and resolution dispute services. Finally, the commission encouraged the understanding that civil legal problems have a significant impact on health outcomes, housing, job performance, school attendance, veterans transitioning into civilian life and offenders attempting to return to the community. A strategic planning process is in place to develop these concepts.
Reference: Billings (MT) Gazette (December 30, 2016) “Legal problems mount for most vulnerable, Supreme Court commission finds”