State ownership boosts legal aid services for low-income families

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Missourians facing eviction or other legal issues often rely on the help of an attorney.

But what if that person is below the poverty line?

Missouri’s Four Legal Aid Regions received a significant increase in income thanks to an appropriations bill signed last month by Governor Mike Parson.

With Parson’s signing, $125 million was split between the agencies.

Money has hit accounts for the past two weeks — at least it did for Mid-Missouri Legal Services, executive director Susan Lutton said.

“We learned a year ago that there was a possibility of this happening. Of course, we never imagined this amount of money would come our way,” Lutton said.

Central Missouri Legal Services operates in an 11-county region. The society is “committed to providing full access to civil justice for people in central Missouri…who cannot afford to hire an attorney,” according to its mission statement.

The agency received $10.2 million of the $125 million.

“We’re the smallest program in the state,” Lutton said.

The organization intends to be a good steward of money, she said.

“Our board and staff determine which positions we want to fill first,” Lutton said. “…It’s an exciting time. We’re trying to make the funds last, so we can maintain services and never restrict services again.”

Legal aid agencies lost funding in the 1990s and haven’t seen a budget increase for 25 to 30 years, Lutton said, adding that a lot of time is spent writing grants to fill the gaps. budgets.

Even with the $10.2 million increase, grant writing will continue.

“That (ownership) is going to help us tremendously to get to where we want to be in terms of customer services,” she said. “We have many grants streams going on. It’s a time-consuming process and we have one staff member who does that exclusively.”

Mid-Missouri Legal Services plans to use the influx of money to hire more attorneys and expand some legal clinic programs.

Even before the money was allocated, the organization had conducted a legal needs survey to determine where to focus its efforts.

“We already have a good idea of ​​the gaps,” Lutton said.

This includes family law matters — particularly domestic and sexual violence cases — and housing cases, including evictions and foreclosures amid the effects of the pandemic.

“We’ve had a lot of people requesting services who have never applied before,” Lutton said. “People who previously would not have been qualified for our services now are.”

Legal aid organizations serve individuals and families who live at or below 125% of the federal poverty level.

Other legal aid services include state and unemployment benefits cases, protection orders and guardianships – whether for children or the elderly.

Lawyers and law students can help provide services for all of these types of cases, either through litigation in a courtroom or through legal aid clinics operated by Mid- Missouri Legal Services, Lutton said.

Legal aid clinics might help with more transactional legal matters, such as suing the uncontested divorce clinic, or with power of attorney, wills, or other similar legal documents.

“It’s something we’re looking at. It’s wonderful to bring in law students and help them with cases, to have those extra hands. It’s good for the students, good for us and good for our clients” , Lutton said.

Charles Dunlap covers the courts, public safety and other general topics for the Tribune. You can reach him at [email protected] or @CD_CDT on Twitter. Please consider subscribing to support vital local journalism.

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