In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty”, asking Americans to join him in that effort. In 1965 Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) was created to provide those living in poverty with the legal help necessary for fighting that war.
Montana Legal Services Association’s first board consisted of 34 people, 20 of whom were attorneys. MLSA established field offices in Butte, Great Falls, Missoula, Helena, and Billings. Attorneys served Wolf Point, Hardin, Havre, and Cut Bank by making routine visits to the rural townships for face-to-face meetings- a delivery system known as “circuit riding”. Three Montana counties were served by a “Judicare” model, whereby local private attorneys received a substantially reduced fee to represent eligible clients. MLSA later expanded to provide two more counties with Judicare coverage, and circuit riders were added to Glendive, Miles City, Bozeman, Lewistown, and Anaconda.
In the early 1980s, the primary source of funding for MLSA, funding by the Legal Services Corporation, was cut by 25%. Legal Aid field offices closed in Montana and throughout the nation. These funding cuts played a role in centralizing administrative duties to MLSA’s main administrative office.
In 1996, Congress cut LSC funding by 30% and imposed a significant number of new restrictions on LSC grantee activities. MLSA lost 48% of its revenue from the combination of LSC’s funding cut and prohibition against receiving attorney’s fees. At one time, MLSA operated 14 offices with 39 attorneys. By 1997, MLSA served Montana with only seven offices and 12 lawyers.
By the end of the 1990s, most Legal Services programs sought other funding sources. MLSA was among the first to receive a grant authorized by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). MLSA was also the first recipient to receive money from the Montana Justice Foundation from a program designed to channel interest on lawyers’ trust accounts (IOLTA) to programs serving the public interest.
By 2001, however, IOLTA funds were also decreasing. This forced MLSA to close its Havre office and lay off staff in Great Falls and Kalispell. By 2003, only Helena, Butte, Billings, and Missoula offered walk-in field offices. Attorneys in Poplar, Browning, and Bozeman began working primarily from their homes. If it was difficult for 39 lawyers in the mid-1970s to meet the critical legal needs of Montana’s low-income population, it became impossible for 12 lawyers to do so.
To meet the increasing demand for assistance, MLSA has been an innovator in the legal aid community. MLSA has established a HelpLine to provide legal information and assist people in the application process. The MLSA website, www.MontanaLawHelp.org, provides additional client resource to locate answers to simple legal questions. For persons who need help navigating the website, MLSA offers “Live Help”, a service in which a live volunteer will respond to computer use-related questions. Applicants now have the opportunity to apply for MLSA’s services through an online application on MLSA’s website, www.mtlsa.org.
MLSA offers hope. MLSA’s presence, the advice MLSA offers, and the ability to listen, without judgment, may be small matter to most people but makes a world of difference to those who have no hope. For 50 years, MLSA has made a difference in people’s lives. More changes will be needed to meet the increasing needs of Montanans living in poverty. MLSA is ready to meet those challenges.