8 November 2013
Supreme Court of Missouri creates new fee to help fund legal services to impoverished Missourians to alleviate cuts in federal funding
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – To help ensure that the increasing number of impoverished Missourians facing legal problems will continue to have access to the courts as the state constitution provides, the Supreme Court of Missouri today announced that all licensed Missouri attorneys will pay an additional $30 fee beginning with the 2014 enrollment year.
Legal services programs provide valuable legal representation to individuals living at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty line. In Missouri, that includes nearly 900,000 individuals, of whom 40 percent are children. Congress created legal services programs nearly 50 years ago but, in fewer than two years, sequestration and budget cuts have reduced funding to Missouri’s programs by nearly 20 percent – a loss of nearly $1.2 million. National funding for legal services is less than half of what it was in 1994 when adjusted for inflation.
At the same time, the number of Missourians who qualify for these legal services has increased. Since 2000, the number of Missourians living in poverty has increased by 39 percent – nearly 5.5 times faster than the growth in the state’s total population. And just since the economic downturn in 2007, state courts have averaged about 10 percent more cases associated with economic hardship.
Legal services organizations historically have been unable to provide services to all those in need of them. Funding has declined because of the recent economic decline. This has been exacerbated by recent drastic cuts in federal funding. Although the new fee cannot replace the lost funds, the Court hopes the money generated from the fees will ameliorate the decline suffered by the state’s legal services organizations.
The Missouri General Assembly recognized the importance of providing legal services to low-income persons when it created the state’s Basic Civil Legal Services Fund. The new fee – expected to generate at least $750,000 – will be paid into that fund for distribution according to statute.
In addition to the statutory fund and community contributions, attorneys already contribute to help fund legal services. The Missouri Bar provides funds for legal services programs, including money generated from trust accounts used by Missouri attorneys. Out-of-state attorneys seeking to practice in Missouri courts also help to support these services.
All attorneys, when taking their oath of admission, promise “to practice law to the best of [their] ability and with consideration for the defenseless and oppressed.” One way they may do so is by providing professional services at no fee or a reduced fee to persons of limited means or to public service or charitable groups or organizations. Each year, thousands of Missouri attorneys provide countless hours of free- and reduced-cost services.
“We are thankful for the significant contributions lawyers practicing in Missouri already make to help support legal services programs,” Chief Justice Mary R. Russell said. “However, there is a crisis in funding for these much-needed services today.”
Tom Burkemper Sr., of The Burkemper Law Firm LLC in Troy, agreed. “I’ve practiced law since June 1965,” he said. “I didn’t get into the law to make a fortune, and I have not done so. But I strongly believe that all lawyers are of good fortune – we are gifted through our education and our abilities. So many others are not, and the legal system is overwhelming for them. I do as much as I am able in my practice to help the poor and the vulnerable through pro bono work. But there is a limit to what one person can do, and I support this fee to help the legal services organizations, which are in a position to help so many more people in this state.”
Judge Lisa Page, circuit judge in the 23rd Judicial Circuit (Jefferson County), added, “I see the new fee as a small investment in everyone’s practice of law. Our trial courts are becoming congested with unrepresented persons who once might have been represented by legal services offices, particularly in domestic violence cases involving children and landlord-tenant disputes. When neither or only one side in a dispute is represented by counsel, these already stressful cases take much more time to resolve, causing frustration to litigants and attorneys alike. I believe everyone – litigants, lawyers, judges and our entire system of justice – benefits when we ensure that more individuals can be represented by experienced legal services attorneys.”
Contact: Beth S. Riggert
Supreme Court of Missouri