Legal Services Corporation announces budget cuts despite increase in caseload

Friday, January 27, 2012 | 6:54 p.m. CST; updated 7:22 p.m. CST, Friday, January 27, 2012

COLUMBIA — Low-income residents seeking help in civil cases will have fewer staff members to turn to as nationwide budget cuts affect mid-Missouri.

Nonprofit legal advice programs nationwide experienced a $72 million cut in funding from Congress since 2010. This resulted in cutting 833 staff members across 135 programs nationwide, according to a Legal Services Corporation news release. That's an average of six staff lost per program in 2011. The Legal Services Corporation anticipates 393 more staff reductions in 2012.

Mid-Missouri Legal Services Corporation, 205 E. Forest Drive, has served low-income residents at or below 125 percent of the poverty line in the 11 counties of mid-Missouri since 1978. In 2011, the program handled 1,700 cases.

The program faced a $135,000 deficit in November when it prepared its budget for 2012. The 14-member staff reduced a full-time attorney to half-time and laid off a half-time attorney.

The program’s main Spanish interpreter lost her position as a full-time support person who would screen applicants to make sure they were low-income eligible for its services, executive director Susan Lutton said. However, she was able to stay on to help interpret when another staff member quit.

“We’re hoping this is the deepest of the cuts. We hope it won’t go any deeper,” Lutton said. Because Mid-Missouri Legal Services has experienced a 60 percent increase in its caseload since 2008, the program was forced to cut some of the categories of cases it takes on instead of creating a waiting list, she said.

Another major funding source for Mid-Missouri Legal Services Corporation, the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts for the state, decreased. Interest on the account is usually donated to legal service aid programs. But the decline of interest rates on the account from 2.5 percent to 0.5 percent since 2010 resulted in a cut from $115,000 to $63,000 donated to the mid-Missouri program in the same time period, Lutton said. 

With three other legal assistance programs in Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield, Lutton said the reduction in federal funding will force the programs to look elsewhere to continue their services.

“We are hoping to tap in to funding from local sources,” she said.

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