Low-income South Dakotans can seek legal help on many issues through new website

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Pierre map locator South Dakota

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A new online tool that links lower-income South Dakotans and lawyers seems to be much faster than the old way, where legal-aid staff directly took people’s initial information.

So said Brent Thompson about SDLawHelp.org at a meeting Monday. The director of East River Legal Services demonstrated the site to members of the state Commission on Equal Access to Our Courts.

What previously took up to an hour or longer can now be done in as little five to 10 minutes by computer.

“South Dakota did not have a page like this before,” Thompson said.

The commission provides some of the funding to Dakota Plains Legal Services, based in Rapid City with six offices covering American Indian reservations throughout South Dakota; Access 2 Justice, a not-for-profit created by the State Bar Association of South Dakota in Pierre; and Sioux Falls-based East River.

The three organizations formally provide free or discounted legal help to lower-income people in South Dakota on matters involving housing, family, veterans, economic stability and older-citizens issues.

Their lawyers don’t take immigration, personal injury, malpractice, workers’ compensation, traffic violations or probate cases. They also don’t handle most criminal cases, although Dakota Plains Legal Services can accept tribal criminal cases.

Eligibility for East River and Dakota Plains generally is 125 percent of the federal poverty level for a household and up to 200 percent in some instances. Access 2 Justice offers lawyers who work pro bono — meaning free — or in what’s called a “modest means” program at discount rates.

The Legislature this year approved $50,000 to help fund the groups for the first time. State courts administrator Greg Sattizahn, a commission member, said Governor Kristi Noem recommended the money again for the coming budget year.

The next steps are gaining more visibility for the website. Commission chairman Tom Welk, a Sioux Falls attorney, suggested its link should be added to the internet pages for the state Unified Judicial System and for the State of South Dakota.

The bar association already has an Access to Justice link on its main page.

Counties covered by the organizations and phone numbers for their offices are here.

“It would seem the more places we can get this link, the more people we can help,” Welk said. He suggested the Legislature receive a demonstration of SDLawHelp.org to show taxpayers’ money is being well-spent.

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