Government grants strengthen legal aid services for low-income families
Missourians faced with an eviction or other legal issue often rely on the help of an attorney.
But what if that person lives below the poverty line?
All four legal aid regions in Missouri received a major sales boost from an appropriation bill signed last month by Governor Mike Parson.
With Parsons’ signature, $125 million was distributed to the agencies.
The money has been pouring into the accounts in recent weeks — at least it has been at Mid-Missouri Legal Services, said Susan Lutton, executive director.
“We found out about a year ago that there was a chance it was going to happen. Of course, we never thought that amount of money would flow through to us,” said Lutton.
Legal advice in Mid-Missouri operates in an 11-county region. The company “is committed to achieving full access to civil justice for residents of central Missouri … who cannot afford to hire an attorney,” according to its mission statement.
The agency received $10.2 million from the $125 million pool.
“We’re the smallest program in the state,” said Lutton.
The organization intends to be a good steward of money, she said.
“Our board and employees are considering which positions we want to fill first,” said Lutton. “…It’s an exciting time. We’re trying to raise the funds so we can keep services running and never be able to cut services again.”
Legal aid agencies lost funds in the 1990s and haven’t seen a budget increase in 25 to 30 years, Lutton said, adding that a lot of time is spent writing grants to fill the budget gaps.
Even with the $10.2 million increase, grant writing continues.
“This (fund) will help tremendously in getting us to where we want to be in terms of customer service delivery,” she said. “We have a lot of grant streams going on. It’s a time-consuming process and we have one person dedicated to it.”
Mid-Missouri Legal Services plans to use the cash inflow to hire more attorneys and expand some legal clinic programs.
Even before the money was approved, the organization had conducted a statutory needs assessment to identify areas on which to focus efforts.
“We already have a good picture of where the gaps are,” Lutton said.
This includes family law issues – particularly cases of domestic and sexual violence – and housing cases, including evictions and foreclosures in the wake of a pandemic.
“We’ve had a lot of people apply for services that have never applied before,” Lutton said. “People who previously would not have qualified for our services now do.”
Legal aid organizations serve individuals and families living at or below 125% of the federal poverty line.
Other legal assistance services include welfare and unemployment benefit cases, protection orders and guardianships – either for children or the elderly.
Both attorneys and law students can help provide services for all of these types of cases, either through litigation in a courtroom or through legal counseling clinics operated by Mid-Missouri Legal Services, Lutton said.
The legal aid clinics could help with more transactional legal matters such as: B. a continuation of the unchallenged divorce clinic, or in the case of powers of attorney, wills or other similar legal documents.
“That’s something we’re looking at. Having law students come in and help with cases is wonderful to have those extra hands. It’s beneficial for the students, for us and for our customers,” said Lutton.
Charles Dunlap covers courts, public safety and other general issues for the Tribune. You can reach him at [email protected] or @CD_CDT on twitter. Please consider subscribing to support important local journalism.