Montana faces unique barriers to the provision of legal assistance. Victims face barriers in accessing services given the largely rural and isolated population, inclement weather and road conditions, restricted access to communication and transportation services, and limited financial resources. Because of the lack of population and industry, the economies of communities are often unable to provide many with health care, law enforcement, legal services and social services that are desperately needed. Many victim service programs are required to serve multiple large counties.
The state of Montana encompasses 145,545 square miles of rural and incorporated counties. Those residents in rural counties make up an average population of 6.8 persons per acre compared to the national average of 87.4 persons per acre. The 2014 census estimates that there are currently 1,023,579 Montana residents. There are seven federally recognized Indian Reservations, comprising over 8,000,000 acres, in the state; each is a sovereign nation with a distinct government and legal system.
Montana Legal Services Association, the only statewide provider of no-cost legal services, has funding for 13 attorneys to serve low-income Montanans. With over 15% (150,000) of Montana’s population falling under the poverty line, approximately one civil legal attorney at MLSA is available for every 11,500 low-income Montanans. The number of victims who report to law enforcement greatly outnumbers the available pro-bono attorneys in the state, as well as family law attorneys that provide services at reduced rates. Challenges arise navigating multiple jurisdictions, including tribal, multi-state, and the international border.
To respond to this, the Montana Board of Crime Control, Montana Legal Services Association and the University of Montana came together to coordinate the Montana Crime Victim Legal Assistance Network (Montana VLAN) with Vision 21 funding in 2014. The Montana VLAN gathered information about available legal assistance for crime victims to inform its plan to implement a statewide network that will provide coordinated, comprehensive and holistic legal assistance to crime victims statewide. The Montana VLAN assessment included service provider focus groups, one-on-one interviews with crime victims, and online stakeholder surveys with participants from throughout Montana, including large, small, reservation, urban-center, rural and remote communities. The information gathered through these three steps was used to inform our Implementation Plan, which guided all phases of the project to create a statewide Victim Legal Assistance Network that will truly provide coordinated, comprehensive and holistic civil legal assistance to crime victims statewide, meeting the diverse needs of crime victims in Montana.