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Study shows legal aid efforts have positive economic impact in state

December 20, 2017


Three civil legal assistance programs have an annual economic impact of $73.4 million in Mississippi, according to a recent economic impact study.

The study performed by Resource for Great Programs on data from 2016 put the total direct economic benefits to civil legal services clients at $32.4 million. The Mississippi Center for Legal Services, North Mississippi Rural Legal Services and the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project were able to secure for their clients benefits including:

•$17.1 million in Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and other Social Security benefits, including projected future benefit payments;
• $5.8 million in Medicare benefits;
• $7 million in Medicaid benefits;
• $1.4 million in child support;
• $275,000 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits;
• $855,000 in mortgage assistance, tax credits and other awards.

The study estimated that the spending of those benefits, combined with other resources of legal aid clients, amounted to $39.8 million. The study noted that most of those benefits are spent locally on needs such as health care, food, utilities and transportation.

The cost savings to the community was an estimated $1.2 million in foreclosure prevention and emergency shelter avoidance.

The benefits that legal services programs gain for poor people far exceed the cost of operating the legal services programs. Funding for legal services in 2016 totaled $6.09 million, with $4.31 million coming from the federally funded Legal Services Corporation.

“That’s a return of $12 for every dollar of program funding,” Dr. Andrea Brewer told Mississippi Access to Justice Commission members Dec. 5 during a teleconference. Brewer, one of the economic impact study authors, is senior research analyst for The Resource for Great Programs.

Legal Services Corporation funding continues to be uncertain, said Ben T. Cole II of Oxford, executive director of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. Funding throughout 2017 was by a series of continuing resolutions from Congress, and the same funding mechanism continued with the start of the new federal fiscal year. “That just puts us in a tremendous bind, just not knowing for sure what our funding is going to be from year to year,” Cole said.

In 2018, funding for Legal Services in Mississippi is expected to be $4,173,611, if no further cuts are implemented, said Sam H. Buchanan of Hattiesburg, director of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services.

More than 800,000 people in Mississippi are eligible for legal assistance from the state’s two federally funded legal aid organizations, Buchanan said. The estimate is based on 125 percent of poverty level.

The 2016 Census update estimates that more than 620,000 people in Mississippi live at or below poverty; 31.5 percent of children under 18 live in poverty. The 2017 federal poverty level is an individual annual income of $12,060, or $24,600 for a family of four.

People at that income level can’t afford to hire a lawyer when they encounter difficulties. They may find help from one of the two Legal Services organizations and the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project – or they do without. Doing without may mean continuing to live in abusive relationships, unable to collect overdue child support. A consumer purchase dispute may mean sinking deeper into debt and facing wage garnishment and bankruptcy, Cole said.

“The typical client that we see on a daily basis is a person who is in dire need of legal help,” Cole said. “They don’t have any place to turn and don’t have money to hire a lawyer.”

Cole recalled a woman living in the Delta who was referred to Legal Services by a lawyer in private practice. Her husband refused to buy food for the family, and isolated her from friends. He emptied the bank account after he learned that she had contacted a divorce attorney. North Mississippi Rural Legal Services represented her in obtaining a divorce. Court filing fees were waived for her because she had no money. She moved to another state afterwards.

Buchanan described another domestic abuse case. A woman whose husband put a gun to her head got a protective order to keep him away, but he kept her in fear by continuing to violate the protective order. She could not afford to hire a lawyer to get a divorce. A Legal Services attorney helped her obtain a divorce, custody of her two children without visitation rights for the ex-husband, monthly child support, alimony and assistance with medical bills.

The Mississippi Center for Legal Services, North Mississippi Rural Legal Services and the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project closed a total of 493 divorce cases for poor clients in 2016, with child support awards estimated at $1.4 million, according to the economic impact study.

Social Security, Medicaid and other benefits are vital to people living in poverty. People seeking access to those benefits sometimes need help to show their eligibility. Buchanan described the case of a 20-year-old Hinds County man who suffered multiple seizures each day without access to medication. Legal Services helped the man’s father gather medical records of emergency room visits and ambulance transports to document his eligibility for disability benefits.

The two Legal Services organizations closed 530 cases involving SSI, SSDI and Social Security in 2016. Back awards totaled $24,919. The projected value of future monthly benefits is estimated to be $17 million, according to the economic impact study.

Legal Services attorneys closed 508 housing assistance cases by giving advice and counsel, and represented 172 other people to the conclusion of their housing cases in 2016. Legal Services attorneys also represented 120 people who were facing foreclosure on their homes.

When Legal Services organizations are unable to handle a case, it may be referred to the Volunteer Lawyers Project. Volunteer attorneys provided free legal assistance valued at $119,450 in 2016, according to MVLP’s 2016 Impact Report,
http://www.mvlp.net/wp-content/uploads/2016-Impact-Report.pdf.

The Resource for Great Programs economic impact study was performed at the request of the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission.

The Access to Justice Commission was created by the Mississippi Supreme Court in June 2006 to develop a unified strategy to improve poor people's access to the civil courts. The Commission is tasked to investigate the need for civil legal services to the poor in Mississippi, and to evaluate, develop and recommend policies, programs and initiatives which will assist the judiciary in meeting the civil legal services needs of the poor.

A copy of the economic impact study findings is attached.

For more information, contact Access to Justice Commission Executive Director Tiffany Graves at 601-960-9581 or e-mail tgraves@msbar.org.

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