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Montana House panel votes to kill legal-assistance bill

Posted: 3:49 PM, Jan 31, 2019
Updated: 2019-01-31 17:49:10-05

HELENA – Republicans on a House panel Thursday voted to kill a measure that would create a $900,000-a-year fund to aid low-income Montanans with civil legal disputes.

The House Judiciary Committee, which heard House Bill 182 last Friday, voted 10-9 to table the bill. All 10 votes to kill the measure came from Republicans; all Democrats on the committee and one Republican, Rep. Terry Moore of Billings, voted to keep it alive.

HB182 would increase court-filing fees to finance a new account administered by the Supreme Court. The high court would distribute the money to local programs that provide legal counsel or “alternative dispute resolution” for low-income citizens involved in legal disputes.

Attorneys and judges, including Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker, came out strongly for the bill last week, saying the court system is badly clogged by cases brought by people who can’t afford a lawyer.

Programs funded by HB182 would help keep many of those cases out of court, with dispute-resolution or other steps, supporters said last week.

But committee chairman Rep. Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield, said Thursday he voted “no” because he didn’t like the higher fees.

He also noted that nonprofit organizations that help low-income citizens with civil legal disputes already exist in Montana.

“If lawyers think the system is too clogged, they can donate to those organizations,” Doane told MTN News.

Attorneys who work with these groups testified for the bill last week, saying their groups have far more demand than they can handle.

Rep. Rob Farris-Olsen, D-Helena, who voted for the bill Thursday, said it would help the entire court system, which has lengthy delays for many civil lawsuits.

“It helps everyone by getting through the cases faster,” he said. “And it’s the only way that a lot of these people are going to get help.”

Ferris-Olsen said he didn’t know if there would be an effort to revive the measure.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Ken Holmlund, R-Miles City.

Story by Mike Dennison, MTN News