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HELENA — Many of Montana’s most vulnerable residents who already fear the state’s court system feel they have nowhere to turn to get help with legal problems.

Those who earn low-to moderate incomes, as well as the homeless population, Native Americans, veterans, senior citizens, domestic violence victims, children and people with disabilities don’t know how to access legal assistance or overcome other hurdles such as daunting paperwork and bad past experiences with the courts.

Between October 2015 and October 2016, the Montana Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission held public forums in seven towns around the state to hear from Montanans about their struggles with legal problems.

The commission found that many poor people in legal crisis over housing problems, parenting and custody disputes, domestic violence and debt collection often have other non-legal problems at the same time.

Mental illness, substance abuse, threats to safety and lack of transportation can intensify legal problems, and legal problems can exacerbate already challenging situations.

An inability to access services can turn many civil legal problems into criminal legal problems, made worse by an inability to access programs and services, the commission found.

Many homeless people remain so due to legal issues such as violent crimes, scams, illegal hiring practices and civil and criminal fines, the report found. Without a permanent address it’s difficult for people to access assistance. In every community where forums were held — Kalispell, Great Falls, Billings, Missoula, Bozeman, Butte and Helena — people said housing problems were connected with civil legal problems.

American Indians often experience the legal system in a punitive way and fear unfairness, the report says. There’s a lack of social services on many of the state’s seven reservations. And many Indians face significant levels of incarceration and hurdles to being released from prison, including an inability to meet sentencing requirements, lack of mental health services, suspended driver’s licenses and other issues. Indians represented 17 percent of adult offenders in the Department of Corrections, though their population as a percentage of the state is closer to 7 percent, according to a 2015 report by the department.

The report found there is only one statewide organization focused on addressing the legal needs of Montana’s disabled population, which totals 148,000. People with disabilities face challenges including abuse and neglect; lack of access to programs, facilities and mental health services; employment discrimination; education needs, and housing issues.

Montana is facing a rising need in the area of elder law, the report says. The number of people 65 and older has increased 21 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census, with many living in rural areas. Seniors are vulnerable to scams and can face health-care problems that cause financial challenges. Many cannot navigate services online and have no link to legal aid organizations or volunteer attorney programs.

The report also said veterans and children younger than 18 without parents or guardians struggle within the legal system.

The commission made several recommendations, including developing a statewide inventory of services and programs available in each region and creating a way for people who need help to get in contact with the services. It also recommended promoting a better understanding that civil legal needs can have a negative effect on health outcomes, housing, school attendance, job performance, the transition for returning veterans, the re-entry into the community for offenders and the protection of seniors. It also recommended securing stable funding to create a continuum of services from self-help programs to civil legal aid, mediation and resolution dispute.

Specifics will be further developed and addressed through the Commission’s strategic planning process.


Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.