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Home / Local / Legal Services Corp. faces shrinking budget as demand for legal assistance grows

Legal Services Corp. faces shrinking budget as demand for legal assistance grows

Programs no longer can afford to handle many bankruptcy, paternity and divorce cases

At Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, the budget cut will mean about 383 fewer client cases this year, says Dan Glazier, executive director. Here, Glazier and Jeanne Philips-Roth, associate director for client services, talk over agency issues Thursday morning. Photo by Karen Elshout

Fewer clients, by the hundreds. Layoffs and downsizing. Cuts in whole categories of cases. Budgets in the red.

Legal aid programs, which provide civil legal assistance to the poor, are always in need of revenue, but this year is particularly painful. In Missouri, nearly $1 million has been slashed from the 2012 budgets of the state’s four legal aid programs as a result of the federal government cutting back on funds for Legal Services Corp.

Each LSC-funded program in the country saw a 14.8 percent cut from its revenue this year. That’s on top of the 4 percent cut in last year’s budget.

And it all comes at a time when demand for the programs is increasing.

If legal aid officials can’t find the money elsewhere, more than 1,300 client cases in Missouri could be rejected this year, according to a total of estimates from the programs’ directors.

For some Missouri programs, the budget slashing also means fewer personnel and other stark consequences.

Mid-Missouri Legal Services, which serves an 11-county area including Columbia and Jefferson City, laid off a full-time attorney last month because of the cut, while another attorney transferred from full time to half time, said Executive Director Susan Lutton. Meanwhile, a full-time support staffer who screens callers and provides interpretation assistance is now in a half-time position.

Lutton said the change in personnel is due to an accumulation of budget cuts and reduced revenue from interest on lawyers trust accounts.

About $950,000 in IOLTA money will be disbursed to the state’s legal services programs this year, compared with $1,045,000 last year, said Denise Brown, executive director of Missouri Lawyer Trust Account Foundation.

“We just didn’t have any choice,” Lutton said about the downsizing. The program had a $135,000 deficit in its budget before the personnel change.

The 14.8 percent budget cut translates to about 300 fewer cases, she estimated.

The Mid-Missouri program, which has seen its caseload rise 60 percent in three years, also had to cut out a whole category of cases in mid-2011. Unless they have pro bono help from private attorneys, they can no longer take on divorce and paternity cases that don’t involve abuse or child-snatching issues.

At Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, which serves 21 counties including the St. Louis area, the budget cut means about 383 fewer client cases in 2012, said Dan Glazier, LSEM’s executive director.  He said LSEM is expecting a budget deficit this year.

The drop in funding led LSEM to offer voluntary retirement to staff at the end of 2011. Seven staff members took it. LSEM is filling only one of the positions, Glazier said.

And because some grant money ended in December, LSEM also can no longer accept new consumer bankruptcy cases in which clients are facing home foreclosures, he said. A full-time attorney in this practice had to leave LSEM when the grant ended.

“We’re already not able to serve a significant number of people who need our services, and when you lose funding, you’re then in a situation where you have to stretch even further and that basically creates a justice gap,” Glazier said.

‘Who’s going to help me?’

For Legal Aid of Western Missouri, the drop in funding has contributed to a six-figure budget deficient in 2012, said Executive Director Gregg Lombardi. The deficit is also a result of a reduction in funding from a HUD program and the end of some grants.

Although the Kansas City-based program has enough reserves to make up for the deficit, Lombardi said, “We’re scrambling as hard as we can to find other funding sources to make ends meet.”

The program, which serves 40 counties, doesn’t plan to replace two paralegals, including one who transferred to another position and one who left the organization. Lombardi estimated that the 14.8 percent cut means the program can’t accept more than 400 cases this year.

“We have 278,000 living in poverty in our service area, and we are really the only help those people will get,” he said.

Staff members sometimes must face people who ask, “Who’s going to help me?” after they’ve been turned away from the legal aid organization, he said.

“We’re sorry, but the answer, there is nobody who can help,” he said.

Domestic violence prevention will be the practice area that’s hit the hardest because those cases represent the biggest need at Legal Aid of Western Missouri, Lombardi said.

Legal Services of Southern Missouri, serving 43 counties including the Springfield area, lost about half-million dollars from its budget as a result of the 14.8 percent budget cut, reduced IOLTA funding and less revenue from filing fees, said executive director Doug Kays. In particular, the recent LSC-budget cut translates to about 250 fewer cases this year, he said.

The legal aid service had to cut $138,948 from its budget for Judicare, a program that pays private attorneys $50 an hour to work on legal services cases. It’s a helpful program for cases in rural areas. But with fewer dollars available for the program, staff attorneys must travel more, eating up more time and money.

The Springfield-based program also can’t replace two people who retired in 2011, including an attorney who specialized in legal services for seniors and a paralegal. “That’s going to affect our ability to serve seniors,” Kays said.

The unemployment rate has inched downward, and economic indicators are showing signs of hope, but legal aid directors said they are not seeing demand let up.

“The clients we serve are usually the last to benefit from any kind of upsurge,” Glazier said.

As revenue drops, Legal Services Corp. estimates that the number of Americans eligible for civil legal aid has increased from 17 percent of the population in 2007 to 20.5 percent this year.

Nationally, LSC-funded organizations anticipated laying off 393 employees, including 163 attorneys, in 2012, according to a survey conducted in December of 132 legal aid programs.

Fundraising

Private donations have helped somewhat, but directors of all four Missouri program say they have not come up with revenue sources so far to make up for the nearly 15 percent cut.

At Legal Aid of Western Missouri, the program brought in 20 percent more in contributions from private individuals and firms during the year-end of 2011 compared with the same time period a year before, Lombardi said.

Legal Services of Eastern Missouri raised $675,000 during its recently concluded Second Annual Bar Campaign.

At Legal Services of Southern Missouri, most donations come from private attorneys and firms, Kays said.

The Boone County Bar Association gave $10,000 to the Mid-Missouri program in December, Lutton said. But one of the unique problems for the program is the lack of big law firms in the area, creating less opportunity for donations.

“We just don’t have the funding from the mega firms, if you will, that other programs do,” she said. “We’re definitely a rural legal aid program.”

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