This just in: Maryland civil legal service programs not only benefit the poor but also save the state millions per year. Legal assistance to low-income Marylanders is a significant economic boost to the state and benefits more than just those receiving aid, according to a report just released by the Maryland Judiciary's Access to Justice Commission.
Legal services mean a lot more than just helping people without means get access to the courts. For example, these services help low-income residents receive the government benefits to which they are entitled; prevent homelessness by avoiding eviction; and help protect against domestic violence.
In 2012, Maryland legal service programs preserved or found housing for almost 1,000 individuals and helped obtain 2,825 civil protective orders for clients. But the economic impact of legal services for the poor went far beyond the families helped, creating $190 million in total economic impact, including $12.6 million in economic stimulus to the state, $3.7 million in state expenditures saved, and $882,096 in tax revenue.
Economic impact studies in a number of other states have reported similar results, potentially changing the way these services will be viewed going forward. For example, a 2011 study of Virginia legal aid programs found a $5.27 return for every dollar invested. Another study, released last month, found that legal aid programs in Ohio netted a $109 million total economic impact to the state. The provision of civil legal services for the indigent can no longer be seen simply as a "feel good" initiative but also as an important economic tool.
Meanwhile, funding for legal services has declined while demand continues to grow in Maryland and nationwide. According to the latest Census Bureau data, 1 in 5 Americans now qualify for civil legal assistance from the federally funded programs — a 3.6 million increase from last year.
The Access to Justice Commission's report comes on the eve of a funding sunset for the Maryland Legal Services Corporation, which receives and distributes funds to nonprofit civil legal service providers. In considering continued funding, the Maryland General Assembly should keep in mind the very real economic benefits of legal aid, not to mention fundamental issues of fairness and justice.
The General Assembly, when it convenes this month, should also take up other important issues concerning civil legal aid. For example, the Access to Justice Commission has recommended the creation of a task force to study civil legal services for the indigent and develop solutions to the increasing problem of self-representation in courts.
Ongoing economic conditions and proposed solutions to state and federal deficits threaten a civil and criminal justice system already in a state of crisis. Maryland's legislature and Congress should endeavor to make smart, evidence-based spending decisions that boost our economy while also promoting fundamental American values, including the idea that our legal system should be fair to all, regardless of one's financial status.
Erek L. Barron, a lawyer with the Baltimore firm Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP, is a member of the boards of the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau Inc. and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. His email is email@example.com.