At a Feb. 21 press conference, Richard Uchida, co-chair of the NH Access to Justice Commission, talks about a new study that shows New Hampshire is far behind the national average in terms of meeting the civil legal needs of its poor and vulnerable citizens.
The NH Access to Justice Commission is taking a dollars-and-cents approach to promoting the value of legal assistance for low-income and vulnerable citizens.
The long-term economic benefit to New Hampshire, when the civil legal needs of low-income citizens are met, is enormous, a new study has found. The study projected that over a 10-year period, the overall economic impact of benefits and savings, and the economic boost that follows when those funds are reinvested in our communities, would total $84.4 million.
Funded by a grant from the American Bar Association and released by the commission at a Feb. 21 press event at the Legislative Office Building in Concord, the study used outcome data from legal services cases in New Hampshire and other states to demonstrate that providing legal services to the poor boosts the economy and saves money.
Also announced were findings that New Hampshire’s primary legal services providers – NH Legal Assistance, NH Pro Bono Referral Program and the Legal Advice & Referral Center (LARC) – were able to help less than 6 percent of the low-income residents with civil legal needs in 2010. According to some national studies, New Hampshire’s ‘justice gap’ is wider than other states, which on average meet the legal needs of 20 percent of the legal needs of the poor, said Richard Uchida, co-chair of the NH Access to Justice Commission, quoting from the assessment, which was funded by a grant from the New Hampshire Bar Foundation.
Appearing with Uchida at the press conference were former NH Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, now the dean of UNH Law; Joseph Reilly, president and CEO of Centrix Bank, a longtime IOLTA Leadership Bank; and former state Senator Dr. James Squires, who is also the former president of Endowment for Health.
"The enduring symbol of the law is an evenly balanced scale upon which evidence and testimony is placed… But if one is unable to find the scale and submit your side of the argument, justice cannot, and will not be served," said Squires.
Broderick commended Gov. Maggie Hassan for including funds for legal services in her proposed state budget and called providing these services "a moral imperative." However, that level of proposed support will not make up for the cut in state funding to NH Legal Assistance (NHLA) that the organization suffered in the last two-year budget cycle.
In addition to state funding challenges, on the federal side, the sequester and the lack of a 2013 federal budget hurts LARC, which is largely funded by the federal Legal Services Corporation. All of the legal services providers additionally have seen their IOLTA funding reduced due to the low income interest rate environment. At the same time, demand for their legal services have been rising.
The needs assessment and the economic impact study are an attempt to raise awareness of the importance of civil legal services, and demonstrate the positive impact it has to improve the lives of poor people.
The NH Access to Justice Commission, which is composed of leaders from the courts, legal services providers and community organizations, was created by the NH Supreme Court in 2007 to improve citizens’ access to the courts. The commission last year asked Michigan-based national policy consulting firm the Resource for Great Programs Inc. to conduct the independent economic impact study. The firm and other researchers have conducted similar studies in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Georgia and Massachusetts. These studies use economic models developed by the Social Security Administration and other federal agencies to determine the economic impact of meeting civil legal needs over time.
The New Hampshire study looked at case outcome information for 2012, 2011 and 2010, that was provided by New Hampshire’s three primary legal services providers, which help thousands of vulnerable individuals and families each year with urgent legal problems that affect basic needs: housing, subsistence income, access to health care and education, and protection from domestic abuse.
The analysis estimated that meeting the civil legal needs of low-income New Hampshire residents in 2012 would generate $26 million over the next 10 years in ongoing income through successful advocacy for federal benefits, including social security, disability benefits and tax refunds. These benefits provide an immediate and sustained boost to the economy, generating $42.7 million in additional economic activity over 10 years for local businesses, landlords, hospitals, pharmacies, and other health care providers, when legal services clients use these funds to pay their bills, buy food and clothing and obtain health care.
The study also estimated that successful legal representation for the poor would generate $12.8 million in child and spousal support, usually received for at least five years. The entire state also would benefit from $2.8 million in estimated annual savings in cases where legal advocacy helped avoid costs related to domestic violence and homelessness.
The health insurance and subsistence income that legal services programs gain for their clients provides access to medical care, vocational rehabilitation, and more education, enabling vulnerable citizens to find jobs and reach self-sufficiency, further boosting the economy.
The legal needs assessment that accompanied the economic analysis called for expanding access for civil legal services for low-income people, including increased funding; improving resources to aid self-represented litigants, such as offering case managers, service centers, and educational workshops; and increasing coordination among service providers to this population to ensure, for example, that Community Action Program (CAP) workers, who encounter a higher number of low-income people, refer clients with legal needs accordingly.