From Missouri Digital News:
MDN Menu

MDN Home

Journalist's Creed


MDN Help

MDN.ORG: Missouri Digital News
MDN Menu

MDN Home

Journalist's Creed


MDN Help

MDN.ORG Mo. Digital News Missouri Digital News MDN.ORG: Mo. Digital News MDN.ORG: Missouri Digital News

Legal Aid

State Capital Bureau

March 01, 1995

JEFFERSON CITY _ Ed Berg often sees women or children in his law office seeking protection from domestic violence. But more and more, Berg is forced to turn these people away.

And Berg, director of Mid-Missouri Legal Services Corporation, says he usually is their last resort.

In cases where a person is seeking a court order of protection, the abuser is granted a public defender, but the victim is left to fend for herself.

Sometimes the victim can find refuge in a little white house on a side street in Columbia. There Berg runs legal aid services _ a program that offers poor people representation in civil suits.

Yet, Berg said the service he provides is increasingly endangered.

In 1980, Missouri's Legal Services programs had 104 staff attorneys. Now, Legal Services has 69 staff attorneys. The number of people below the federal poverty level has grown 13.9 percent from 1980 to 1993.

"There is a widening gap between those that qualify for legal aid services and the services that they can offer," said Ron Mitchell, president of the Missouri Bar Association.

Berg complains the federal government is granting the legal aid services less and less money. There also has been talk among Congressmen of stripping away all federal funding.

"It effects what legal services we can provide," Berg said. "We have a high number of people call and get rejected. The type of cases we take are limited. We shut down intake and only take more complex cases."

And so the legal aid directors are turning to the state. Twenty-three states fund legal services.

But Missouri has been resistant. Last year, the state allocated legal aid $1,000. This year, the governor didn't recommend that legal services get any state funds.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Mike Lybyer, D-Huggins, said he doesn't think Missouri should commit to funding the program.

"It is a liability that we have to pay for years," he said. "There is only so much money to go around."

Lybyer said that many of their lawsuits are against the state itself.

"We would be paying them to sue us," he said.

Others who object to state funding of legal services maintain that lawyers who volunteer their time can make up the gap.

However, Mitchell contends the need is so great that pro bono work by lawyers will never wipe out the disparity.

Mitchell also said a fundamental task of government is making sure that people have an opportunity for justice.

"The constitution says justice for all, not only for the rich," he said.

Mitchell argues that if people feel as though they are being unfairly denied benefits from the state, they have the right to sue.

Legal aid directors insist that the services they offer are necessary to help poor people who otherwise do not have a voice in court.

"Someone did a survey that showed 85 percent of the people who use legal aid are women," Berg said. "The public defender serves 90 percent men. We do cases involving abuse, food stamps, AFDC cases, landlord and client."

And Richard Teitelman, executive director of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, said many of those clients have serious legal-support needs.

"Our job is to protect the victim," he said. "So many of our cases are sexual molestation, where the parent is maiming the child's psyche."

If legal services is allowed to fade away or if its services are substantially reduced, poor people who need legal help will be left without adequate legal representation, Teitelman said.

"There is no where else for these people to go," he said. "Most lawyers charge $75 per hour. There is a huge volume of cases."

Or poor people will try to defend for themselves in the legal system, Berg said.

"Problems will go unmet," Berg said. "Women will remain in abusive situations, so will their children. More violence in a family setting will linger. It will mean a crumbling of the safety net for women and children."