Montana Legal Services Association cutting staff

2011-10-25T10:45:00Z Montana Legal Services Association cutting staffBy SANJAY TALWANI Helena Independent Record The Billings Gazette

HELENA -- Things may get just a little harder for people in Montana who need a lawyer in a civil case but can't afford one, after a planned reorganization and reduction of staff at the Montana Legal Services Association.

The MLSA, which provides direct services to about 4,500 people in family law, domestic violence situations, landlord-tenant conflicts and many other areas, is cutting the equivalent of 7.75 full-time positions out of about 50 in 2012 to handle funding losses of about $500,000, or 15 percent of its annual budget.

MLSA has offices in Helena, Billings, Missoula and Butte but provides services all over the state. The largest office, with 23 people (including about seven AmeriCorps volunteers) is in Helena because it is the site of most administrative functions. Helena will lose one full-time position.

MLSA Executive Director Alison Paul said the organization will work on creative ways to improve and maintain services, ramp up funding and try to gain more volunteer, or "pro bono," attorneys.

"We're going to do what we can to enforce the legal rights of low-income people," she said. "We're still here; we're just smaller."

As part of the reorganization, Missoula-based Klaus Sitte, the former executive director and current director of litigation, will reduce his role to one-quarter of a full-time position. The reorganization aimed to reduce management positions and save front-line jobs.

General family law, including parenting plans and divorce issues, will take a "huge hit" from the cuts, Paul said. MLSA will continue to provide as many "self-help" resources as possible.

The firm does not provide representation in criminal cases; that's the job of public defenders when a defendant cannot afford a lawyer.

Other organizations, including the Montana Law Library, provide some legal resources but not actual legal advice from attorneys or paralegals.

MLSA gets most of its funding from the Legal Services Corp., a nationwide group funded by Congress. It distributes money to state and local organizations based on poverty measures, but has had its own funding cut, Paul said.

Other funding sources are also drying up. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has eliminated funding for housing counseling programs for low-income people, for example.

MLSA gets nothing from the state general fund but gets some from court filing fees and from the Montana Justice Foundation, which, in turn, gets funding from the interest on trust accounts set up by lawyers to hold money in some cases.

Other issues addressed by MLSA -- and outlined at MontanaLawHelp.org -- include estate planning, elder abuse and Medicare matters; debt, collections and tax help; military, veterans and other federal benefits; American Indian issues including matters related to the Indian Child Welfare Act; and workplace issues.

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