My Turn: McGuire bill helps fund agency offering legal services to poor

Posted: Wednesday, February 01, 2006


The Alaska Observer

Most Alaskans are fortunate not to have to worry about engaging the services of an attorney except in a few circumstances. Two types of situation can lead a person into court: criminal charges or a civil legal matter. A person accused of a crime by local, state or federal government and who can't afford to hire a defense attorney is assigned counsel by the judge presiding over his trial. There is no guarantee of such assistance to a person with a civil legal problem, and it may not be possible even to make a legal claim without such assistance.

It may seem like a simple distinction, but to ensure that the difference is clear to all, in a criminal matter the entity bringing charges is the government, and the person defending against said charges is an individual. Civil matters may involve the state of Alaska or some other governmental entity as a party, or they may involve private parties with no affiliations to government. The U.S. and Alaska constitutions guarantee an attorney to a person charged with a crime despite that person's inability to pay because the stakes are very high in criminal court, including loss of freedom and the stigma of being branded a criminal convict. Civil matters may not result in punishments such as jail sentences, but they still involve important decisions that directly affect the lives of real people. To go to court without an attorney makes it less likely that the outcome will be to one's benefit or liking. Often people who cannot afford an attorney simply ignore their legal problems until they grow worse, and dire circumstances result.

There are several sources of help for Alaskans who can not afford counsel in civil legal cases. Alaska Legal Services Corp. (ALSC) is a private, nonprofit law firm that helps Alaskans who fall below a certain income level. ALSC receives some funding from the federal Legal Services Corp., but these funds come with strings attached, preventing this money from being used for certain types of cases. ALSC formerly received an annual appropriation from the Alaska Legislature. ALSC tends to focus on matters involving family law, housing, consumer issues, government benefits, health issues, wills, Alaska Native allotments, subsistence issues, and Indian and tribal law. The first category, family law, comprises many things including divorce, child custody and visitation, child support, paternity, adoptions, guardianships, conservatorships and domestic violence. One fact of life at ALSC is that demand for attorney services outstrips the available supply, and the supply is based on funding.

The Alaska Bar Association also has a pro bono program, the words which in Latin mean "for free." This program matches attorneys in private practice with Alaskans who need their assistance but whose particular situation (either the nature of the case or income level) prevents ALSC from stepping up to the plate. There are other programs for special categories of legal assistance, including one run by the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault.

One of the family law programs run by ALSC that recently came to an end was the Rural Domestic Violence Project, which paid for attorneys in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau to represent victims of abuse. The funds for this program came from the federal Department of Justice, and there is no immediate replacement for them in sight. I have recently signed on as a volunteer attorney for the Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, and I know that many of my fellow attorneys will be doing the same.

Rep. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, has brought forward legislation that may help address the funding problems facing the Alaska Legal Services Corp. House Bill 175 would create an account in the general fund to which the Legislature may appropriate proceeds from punitive damage awards that are paid to the state pursuant to tort-reform legislation enacted several years ago. This would keep funds from one area of civil law within the legal system and use them to underwrite costs in a different area. While this would still require annual action by the Legislature, it does recognize a real need, and suggests one good way to address it.

I applaud McGuire for making headway on the issue of assisting low-income Alaskans. As she has rightly noted in speaking in support of her bill, one's economic circumstances do not drive one's need for civil legal representation. I hope she is successful in getting HB 175 past the House and through the Senate this year. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to the opportunities and challenges I'll face as I volunteer to help meet some of the need that exists in Alaska's courthouses.

• Benjamin Brown is a Juneau attorney.

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