By Justin Karter
Point Park News Service
A 62-year-old widow, in danger of losing her home of 36 years after the loss of her husband, avoided moving to a shelter because of free legal aid.
After a child went missing in a custody dispute during the Christmas holidays, Neighborhood Legal Services Association, Pittsburgh’s largest provider of free civil legal aid, returned the child to the mother.
Despite these successes, cuts from both state and federal sources reduced funding for free civil legal aid by 20% in just the past year, forcing agencies to let go of staff attorneys and cut back on their services.
“Legal Services operates with the understanding that when everyone is given access to justice it truly benefits the whole community. When we all have a fair chance to succeed then Pittsburgh succeeds,” said Robert V. Racunas Esq., executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services Association of Pittsburgh (NLSA).
In a September newsletter to their clients, NLSA explained, “Budget cuts at both the federal and state level have further reduced NLSA’s funding by $800,000 – significantly impacting NLSA’s ability to sustain services.”
The recent cutbacks have forced NLSA to let go 6 staff attorneys, which influences the number and type of cases they can handle.
“Even before the cuts, legal aid services did not have adequate funding to meet the needs of every client,” said Carol McCarthy Esq., a Pittsburgh family attorney and president of NLSA’s Board of Directors.
When free legal aid organizations cannot help their clients, it actually affects the entire economy, according to a study by Pennsylvania’s Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (PA IOLTA), a non-profit program that provides funding for civil legal aid.
“This is the type of funding that not only rights wrongs but makes clear economic sense,” Executive Director of PA IOLTA Al Azen said.
A new study by PA IOLTA, shows that over the last fiscal year the work of poverty legal services created $594 million for the local economy, an unheard-of eleven fold economic return on their funding.
Much of the economic benefit of free legal aid comes from saved resources.
“When individuals are unrepresented and unable to assert their right to obtain federal benefits, stay in their home, or keep their jobs, many times the communities must step in to fill the gap, spending taxpayer funds on countless other programs,” McCarthy said.
For example, when an elderly woman, who recently lost her husband, came to NLSA, her home had already been sold at a tax auction. The lawyers at NLSA took her case to bankruptcy court and got her back into her home, rather than a shelter.
In 2011 alone, over 1,700 families avoided the need for an emergency shelter due the legal aid services. Over a five-year period, this amounts to a savings of $111 million for the state of Pennsylvania in emergency shelter costs, according to a report issued by IOLTA.
Housing studies show that vacant properties created by foreclosures can cost neighbors over $6,000 each, according to Joanna Deming, director of education and outreach for the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. A new publication by Housing Alliance, “A New Vision for Housing Market Recovery” reports that in two-thirds of the cases handled by free legal aid services the clients avoided a pending foreclosure.
When free legal aid can protect innocent people from financially crippling circumstances, their clients can continue to live their lives without continued public assistance, and can spend their money at the local restaurants, shops and businesses that support Pittsburgh’s economy.
“Every dollar that you put into the hands of people in poverty goes right back into the economy. That dollar gets spent right away on groceries and necessities, resulting in an economic benefit to the entire community,” Azen said.
Free legal aid also saves the local economy by intervening and preventing domestic disputes. The single working mother from Lawrence County came to the lawyers at NLSA after her child disappeared right before Christmas. NLSA obtained an order giving the mother primary custody, however the father still refused to return the child. To make matters worse, the child showed signs of abuse, evinced by some bruises. NLSA then obtained a motion for the immediate return of the child with the help of the police and reunited the mother with her son.
The same study by IOLTA reports that legal aid protected over 6,000 families in Pennsylvania from domestic abuse issues in 2011. Without legal aid, the community would incur the costs of “medical care for injured victims, education and counseling services for affected children, and law enforcement resources.” This all adds up to a savings of $23 million in costs related to domestic disputes, according to IOLTA.
“In a democracy everyone’s voice needs an opportunity to be head, or you’ll have complete chaos. People have to have to the ability to assert their voice and their rights, or they’ll be forced to resort to other means,” said Azen.
The NLSA reports that it will continue to seek new sources of funding in order to keep their doors open to those who need representation but the cuts will severely affect how much attention they will be able to give each case.
“The cuts have come as a result of economic pressures,” Azen explained. “It’s not a philosophical issue.”