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By Mark Moran - Producer-Editor, Contact - News


Big Sky Connection - Legal services advocates are training residents of Montana's Indigenous communities to provide crucial legal aid on the state's seven tribal reservations. It takes special training to argue cases in tribal court, and qualified advocates are in short supply. Comments from two spokespersons for Montana Legal Services: Valerie Falls Down, tribal advocacy coordinator; and Kathryn Seaton, supervising attorney, Tribal Law Practice Group.


Falls Down

Mark Moran

January 4, 2024 - A new program from the Montana Legal Services Association is boosting legal assistance to people living on the state's tribal land.

The Tribal Advocate Incubator Project gives lay people the skills they need to help Montana's underserved Indigenous population. Right now, many of Montana's Indigenous people lack legal services or the money they need to pay for them. The incubator project recruits and trains lay people from each of Montana's Indigenous communities to help tribal members who need legal assistance.

Valerie Falls Down, tribal advocacy coordinator for Montana Legal Services, who coordinates the 14-week training program, said while the lay advocates are not lawyers, they are equipped to help address some of the unique legal challenges Montana's tribal members face.

"The remote nature of Montana's seven reservations and the lack of locally available educational programs for lay advocates contribute to the shortage of qualified lay advocates in Montana's tribal communities," Falls Down explained. "It has a huge impact with all of the community members who now have access to legal services."

Seven students from each of Montana's tribal reservations recently took part in a mock trial in Billings to practice the skills they will use when they represent tribal members in their communities.

Most legal issues on the reservation wind up in tribal court.

Kathryn Seaton, supervising attorney of the tribal law practice group for Montana Legal Services, said lawyers have to be licensed to practice there. Since most are not, the program provides opportunities for local lay advocates.

"By providing education and mentorship opportunities and case referrals to people from tribal communities who want to open up their own businesses and provide legal services to low- and moderate-income people who have legal issues in tribal courts," Seaton outlined.

Falls Down spoke to the American Bar Association about the incubator project, and noted other legal aid organizations are considering replicating it elsewhere in the country.

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