by Phil Ensler, Policy Counsel
Victims of domestic violence, tenants facing eviction, and veterans seeking their benefits are among the thousands of low-income Alabamians who receive free legal assistance from civil legal aid attorneys because they cannot afford to hire their own attorneys.
Despite the essential need for these services, Alabama is one of only two states that does not fund civil legal aid. Instead, legal aid providers in Alabama rely on the federal government, non-profit organizations, and sometimes municipalities for funding.
This leaves thousands of Alabama’s most vulnerable residents without access to lawyers. It is also a bad business decision, with far-reaching consequences for our local economies.
According to a recent study published by the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation, for every $1 invested in civil legal services, Alabama communities received almost $12 of immediate and long-term economic benefits. That is an extraordinary social return on investment of 1,195% that amounts to a value of over $200 million gained from civil legal services.
Despite these benefits, civil legal aid in Alabama is grossly underfunded. Alabama is the lowest funded state for civil legal aid at a rate of $9.85 per eligible person. This amounts to half of the national average of $20 per person, and is a stark contrast to the highest funded state, which is 11 times greater than Alabama. In 2016, $8.9 million was spent in Alabama on civil legal aid. In order to meet the national average, Alabama would need to increase its spending to $18 million, and to fully meet the needs of all eligible Alabamians it would need to spend $45.5 million. By fully funding civil legal aid, Alabama would not merely be spending money to ensure that all Alabamians have access to justice, but also making a wise investment in our economy.
Funding civil legal services yields such a high return on investment because legal aid providers represent low-income Alabamians in a range of areas that impact the economy, including housing, employment, family issues, public benefits, consumer protection, and community issues.
These services can help a family keep a roof over their heads and avoid homelessness. For others, it means restructuring crippling debt to avoid financial ruin. For some elderly clients, this help means a recovery of social security payments or other federal benefits that had been mistakenly suspended. For some veterans, it secures much-needed and hard-earned benefits. For others, these services means better, safer custody arrangements for children or even a long-awaited adoption.
All of these outcomes strengthen our local economies, helping people remain in their homes, protect their wages, and resolve disputes that allow them to better support themselves and contribute positively to their communities. Alabama would be wise to heed the findings of the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation study and start investing in civil legal services.
To learn more about our work to ensure access to justice for all Alabamians, check out our website.