Civil legal aid breaks the cycle of poverty, benefits taxpayers

09/17/2015 © Orlando Sentinel (Requires Login)

Last week the Orlando Sentinel reported on new findings that one in 17 Central Florida children has been homeless during the past year, according to an independent study commissioned by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. This week, the U.S. Census Bureau released new poverty data showing that 23.5 percent of Florida children almost one in four are living in poverty, while the state's overall poverty rate is still hovering at around 17 percent.

For every family that loses its home to foreclosure or eviction, there are costs to getting the family back on its feet. But there are broader societal costs as well. Studies show that a foreclosure lowers the value of the surrounding homes by about 1 percent to 2 percent on average, while a 1 percentage-point increase in the foreclosure rate can increase violent crimes in a census tract by 2.33 percent.

Based on a study published in the Harvard Law Review in 2013 involving a random sample of eviction cases in Quincy, Mass., it is estimated that 33 percent more tenants prevail in other words, retain possession of their housing when they receive full legal representation in eviction cases. A 2014 report by the Boston Bar Association Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts found that when tenants don't prevail, costs incurred by the state include emergency housing and shelter, as well as increased health care, foster care and police costs. For every dollar spent on civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure cases, Massachusetts saves about $2.69.

But housing is just one poverty-related problem that can have a legal solution.

Research conducted in 2013 by Rebecca Sandefur of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that two-thirds of a random sample of adults in a midsized American city experienced at least one civil justice problem in the previous 18 months. Commonly reported bread and butter civil legal issues included employment matters, finances and debt, and access to insurance and government benefits, all of which are issues that legal-aid organizations such as the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association assist clients with every day.


By keeping Floridians in their homes, securing their livelihoods and protecting their rights to health-care, veterans' and other benefits, legal aid not only helps break the cycle of poverty, but also provides important return on investment for taxpayers and businesses, whose employees are more productive when they are not facing often-complex legal issues on their own.

The economic impact of civil legal assistance in Florida is well documented. Florida TaxWatch found in 2010 that legal aid produces a return of $4.78 on every dollar spent on civil legal assistance in our state. More recently, The Florida Bar Foundation's 30 civil legal-aid grantees throughout Florida documented direct dollar benefits to clients totaling more than $89 million in 2013 from sources including child support and federal programs such as Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, which is designed to provide food, shelter and medical care to elderly and disabled people.

In addition, civil legal aid, along with improved self-help systems and simplified court processes, can increase the efficiency of our courts and prevent many cases from unnecessarily reaching the courts in the first place, thus saving time and money.

The Florida Bar Foundation, the Florida Supreme Court, The Florida Bar, business, government and legal-aid leaders have recognized the need for innovative solutions and have come together through the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, which is seeking to close Florida's justice gap. These efforts deserve everyone's support, since a lack of access to justice for some is ultimately a burden to us all.

Darryl Bloodworth is past president of The Florida Bar Foundation and The Orange County Bar Association.