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Project to Train People to Represent Montanans in Tribal Courts

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Wednesday, February 9, 2022   

A program is looking for Montanans to represent people in courts on tribal reservations, who often lack access to legal assistance when they need it.

The Tribal Advocate Incubator Project wants to train lay advocates - that is, people who are not lawyers by profession - to represent folks in tribal courts across the state.

"Tribal lay advocates will represent tribal members in tribal court regarding civil legal matters," said Valerie Falls Down, tribal advocacy coordinator for the Montana Legal Services Association, "including divorce and custody, landlord-tenant disputes, wills and probate, real estate and land issues."

Montana's seven reservations are mostly rural, and a 2017 study found the poverty rate was 30% on the state's reservations. The Montana Legal Services Association is teaming up with the University of Montana law school and the Indian Law Section of the State Bar on this training program.

The Montana Legal Services Association provides free legal advice and services to low-income Montanans. Falls Down said cost often is a major barrier to representation in court.

"Someone who is low income would not otherwise be able to afford paying a lawyer, which is high priced," she said.

Because each tribal court system is different, she said lay advocates would have to be licensed in that system in order to represent clients.

"What we want to do with this program is, we want to train local people in each tribe," she said, "so that they can represent [clients] in their own community."

Falls Down said her organization is identifying candidates, and the program's first training will start in May.

Disclosure: Montana Legal Services Association contributes to our fund for reporting on Civil Rights, Human Rights/Racial Justice, Poverty Issues, Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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