Legal Aid – A Solid Investment

Legal Aid
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Where can you get a return of $3.94 on a one-dollar investment? Legal aid in Minnesota! A new report on the Economic Impact of Legal Aid in Minnesota demonstrates that access to justice gives a good financial return – not only for the families and individuals served, but also for the state.

The report, issued by the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, estimates that every Minnesota dollar spent on legal aid returns $3.94 to the state’s economy. That’s a conservative estimate, and an excellent return on investment.

Using 2014 data, the report looks at the regional coalition programs that together provide comprehensive legal services in all 87 Minnesota counties, and at 15 additional specialized programs. Together the legal aid programs help victims of domestic violence achieve safety; prevent homelessness due to improper eviction or foreclosure; protect vulnerable people from financial exploitation; and maximize the ability of people who are elderly or have disabilities to live safely and independently in their communities.

The report found that Minnesota’s legal aid programs helped 48,444 families and individuals with low incomes in 2014 and secured $133 million in benefits for them:

  •  Brought $3.8M in new federal benefits.
  • Brought $5.6M in non-governmental income.
  •  Protected $4.4M in federal benefits.
  • Protected $13M of non-governmental income.

Each dollar in the hand of a Minnesota resident has an immediate effect; a rise in household income results in a rise in household consumption and creates economic activity. This is especially true in low-income households, where people tend to spend all of their income to meet basic needs.

This assistance also results in significant avoided costs. For example, the Minnesota Department of Human Services estimates a cost of $53/day for emergency shelter for a homeless individual. In 2014, legal aid programs helped 2,288 families and individuals avoid a housing loss. Using an average length of stay, these cases saved Minnesota taxpayers over $4.1 million in avoided shelter costs alone. That doesn’t touch the costs of lost wages, decreased productivity, law enforcement, jail or emergency health care. Beyond that, the emotional effects of destabilized families, stress and trauma increase individual and collective costs for years to come.

A Minnesota boy in a domestic violence situation missed school 40 times in a year due to stomach aches and his grades dropped. In phone visitations from prison, the boy’s father was interrogating him about his mother’s new boyfriend. The mother contacted legal aid, and the attorney obtained a temporary order to stop the phone visitation, followed by a permanent “no contact” order. The boy’s grades rebounded to As and Bs, and he missed school only three times the following year.

Another important multiplier effect of legal aid funding is the ability of programs to leverage volunteer assistance. Legal aid provides numerous opportunities for active licensed lawyers to meet their pro bono obligation. By offering structured training, access to practice materials and ongoing support, legal aid can make it easier for attorneys to find suitable volunteer placement. In 2014, volunteer attorneys provided nearly $22 million in free legal services through civil legal services organizations.

While the cost-benefit ratio of a $3.94 return on every dollar makes good financial sense, the work of legal aid extends far beyond measurable finances. Legal representation opens the courthouse door and ensures the exercise of legal rights. It makes systems work so people can create their own success, and improves economic health and quality of life for the entire community.  Leykn Schmatz

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