WisTAF originated in 1986 with the establishment of the state's Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program, a then-new funding mechanism for helping people of limited means to access the legal system. The legacy of that moment is our expertise in developing, managing, and investing IOLTA and other funds to increase access to justice in Wisconsin.
In the IOLTA program, attorneys and firms pool short-term or nominal deposits made on behalf of clients or third parties into one account. The interest generated by these accounts is remitted to WisTAF for use in grantmaking to support legal aid. Most participating financial institutions additionally waive fees or provide increased interest as a way to support their communities.
In 2005, the Wisconsin Supreme Court established the Public Interest Legal Services Fund (PILSF), citing its necessity in maintaining “the integrity and efficiency of the judicial system within this state” and “the heightened obligations of lawyers, both to our justice system and to assist this Court with the effective administration of justice.” The Fund plays a critical role in supplementing erratic IOLTA funding with a more stable revenue source for civil legal services for low-income Wisconsinites. PILSF funds are directly attributable to the state’s attorneys and judges, and are distributed throughout Wisconsin’s judicial districts.
Wisconsin’s lawmakers and governor began investing a relatively modest annual amount in federal Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) funding, starting in the 2015-2017 state budget. The support comes through the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families for a WisTAF-administered grant program that provides legal services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
After advocacy from WisTAF and our civil legal aid partners, Gov. Tony Evers used this flexible COVID-19 relief funding to make a significant, one-time-only investment in civil legal aid for COVID-related issues, and a lesser allocation to support the development of the Wisconsin Law Help portal. WisTAF was chosen to administer both grants under the auspices of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.
This distinct COVID-19 relief fund allowed the State to create the limited-term Wisconsin Help for Homeowners program, within which WisTAF administers the Legal Services component. The Wisconsin Community Action Program Association manages the overall project under the auspices of the Wisconsin Department of Administration.
In 2022, the U.S. Congress provided a one-time allocation to help Afghan evacuees in Wisconsin secure their safety and stability by addressing related legal tangles. The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families tapped WisTAF to administer the program.
A 2014 United States Department of Justice settlement with Bank of America provided IOLTA programs nationwide with one-time funds for foreclosure prevention and community redevelopment legal assistance.
By order of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, a portion of the pro hac vice admission fees paid by nonresident lawyers to participate in a particular action in Wisconsin is allocated to WisTAF to help support civil legal services for low-income and indigent persons.
Wisconsin statutes require that WisTAF receive at least half of any residual funds left over from class action lawsuits filed in Wisconsin state court, in order to provide civil legal aid. Such residuals are referred to by the name of the applicable legal doctrine, cy pres. In addition, sometimes parties choose to name WisTAF as the recipient of other residuals, whether class actions, restitution, settlements, or penalties.
WisTAF is grateful to the individuals, foundations, and other entities that contribute to our work to provide access to justice in Wisconsin.