Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) – The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony Monday on a bill that would make it easier for Montanans to get public counsel in a court of law -- essentially cutting out financial eligibility paperwork in some cases and immediately assigning a state-sponsored defense attorney. 

Jodee Etchart, R-Billings, sponsored HB 111. The goal of the bill is to avoid people showing up in court without representation. It was designed to target cases in which defendants are unable or unwilling to fill out the paperwork. 

Brian Smith is with the Office of the State Public Defender and a proponent of the bill. He says these cases often involve cases of child abuse or neglect or cases when the defendant is mentally ill or involuntarily committed. He also said in the end, it will save the Public Defender’s office an estimated $20,000 a year. 

“These individuals qualify for our services,” Smith said. “We're not representing people who do not qualify in dependency and neglect cases, and it's also a savings of money.”

Maggie Bornstein from the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana also spoke in favor of the bill. 

“Alleviating red tape in assignment of counsel will be to the benefit of both indigent defendants along with administrators,” Bornstein said. 

There was no opposition to HB 111 at the hearing Monday. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday.

Elinor Smith is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.