Missourians facing an eviction or some other legal issue often rely on a lawyer’s help.
But what about when that person is below the poverty line?
All four legal aid regions in Missouri received a major revenue boost through an appropriation bill signed last month by Gov. Mike Parsons.
With Parson’s signature, $125 million was distributed among the agencies.
Money hit accounts within the last couple of weeks — at least, that was the case for Mid-Missouri Legal Services, said Susan Lutton, executive director.
“We learned about it a year ago that there was a possibility it would happen. Of course, we never dreamed this amount of money would float through to us,” Lutton said.
Mid-Missouri Legal Services operates in an 11-county region. The corporation is “committed to achieving full access to justice in civil matters for central Missourians … who cannot afford to hire an attorney,” per its mission statement.
The agency received $10.2 million of the $125 million pool.
“We are the smallest program in the state,” Lutton said.
The organization intends to be a good steward of the money, she said.
“Our board and staff are figuring out what positions we want to fill first,” Lutton said. “… It is an exciting time. We are trying to make the funds last, so that we can keep services going and never constrict services again.”
Legal aid agencies lost out on appropriations in the 1990s and have not seen a budgetary boost in 25 to 30 years, Lutton said, adding a lot of time is spent grant writing to fill in the budget gaps.
Even with the $10.2 million boost, grant writing will continue.
“This (appropriation) is going to help tremendously to get us where we want to be in terms of providing client services,” she said. “We have many grant streams going. It is a time-consuming process and we have a staff member who does that exclusively.”
Mid-Missouri Legal Services plans to use the influx of money to hire more lawyers and expand some legal clinic programs.
Even before the money was appropriated, the organization had conducted a legal needs survey to determine areas to focus efforts.
“We already have a good handle on where the gaps are,” Lutton said.
This includes family law issues — particularly domestic and sexual violence cases — and housing cases, including evictions and foreclosures as part of pandemic effects.
“We have had a lot of people applying for services who have never applied before,” Lutton said. “People who previously would not have 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 public and unemployment benefits cases, protection orders and guardianships — either for children or elders.
Both lawyers and law students can help deliver services for all these types of cases, either through litigation in a courtroom or through legal aid clinics operated by Mid-Missouri Legal Services, Lutton said.
The legal aid clinics could help with more transactional legal matters, such as a continuation of the uncontested divorce clinic, or with power of attorney, wills or other similar legal documentation.
“That is something we are looking at. Having law students come in and help with cases is wonderful, having those extra set of hands. It is beneficial for the students, for us and our clients,” Lutton said.
Charles Dunlap covers courts, public safety and other general subjects 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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