Access to justice in family court

Tonya Brito

Tonya Brito wants to know: how much do lawyers matter?

The UW Law School professor is particularly interested in how much of a difference lawyers make in resolving child-support cases. Brito is a family-law scholar, and she knows that many fathers — especially those with low incomes and men of color — rely on legal assistance in child-support litigation.

With help from the Sheldon B. Lubar Distinguished Research Chair in Law, Brito will be able to explore this issue. She received that honor in 2016, and it’s one of the few endowed chairs at the UW that is awarded on an annual basis through a competitive process.

Brito says her project “informs the ongoing policy debate about how to best secure civil justice for low-income, unrepresented litigants. It asks: How do lawyers matter? And are more limited forms of legal assistance a suitable alternative to attorney representation?”

Brito tracked 40 cases in Wisconsin and Illinois, where she observed child-support enforcement hearings. Her research also provides information about the court system’s culture and how legal assistance shapes litigants’ experiences.

UW Law School dean Margaret Raymond says Brito’s project shows the school’s tradition of law in action.
“Our focus is on examining how the real world interacts with the law to create outcomes for people, and that is what Professor Brito is doing,” Raymond says. “It plays into the Wisconsin Idea because once we have those answers, we can identify the concrete policy recommendations that improve people’s lives.”

Brito — and every professor who holds the Lubar Chair — is giving policymakers real-world data on which to base their decisions. And that helps to move Wisconsin — and the nation — forward.