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Southwest Louisiana Law Center executive director Mark Judson discusses a legal matter with clients Brittany and Lisa Landry. (BRAD PUCKETT / AMERICAN PRESS)

Louisiana has decided to once again fund a legal aid program that helps low-income citizens deal with issues like housing, health insurance, employment, parental rights and protective orders against domestic abusers. The $500,000 appropriation for the fiscal year that begins July 1 may not seem like much, but each of those dollars yields a return of $9.13.

Only four states have failed to fund legal assistance for civil matters, and now there will be only three —Alabama, Florida and Idaho. The Times-Picayune editorial board said amounts budgeted by other states vary from $556,000 per year in Arkansas to nearly $72 million in Texas. Mississippi spends $708,000 annually.

Louisiana funded the program in fiscal year 2008-09, but when Bobby Jindal became governor in 2008, he eliminated the funding the following year. Legislators didn’t restore the funding until this latest appropriation.

Chris Ralston with the Access to Justice Commission said this new funding would allow agencies to apply for grants from national foundations that were previously out of reach without a state contribution.

“The Kellogg Foundation won’t fund you if your state doesn’t,” Ralston said. “So, we’re already working on that. We don’t want the state to do it all for us, we just want to be in the game.”

The two agencies that provide legal aid for civil matters are Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS) and the Acadiana Legal Services Corp. SLLS provides free legal representation in Orleans and 21 other parishes, and Acadiana in the other parishes. They also get funding from the federal government, but that funding has been under threat of ending for the past two years.

Citizens who qualify for assistance are those who fall under federal poverty guidelines. That means an annual income of $15,613 for an individual and $32,188 for a family of four.

Housing issues they handle include evictions, landlord and tenant disputes, successions, sub-standard housing and foreclosures. They also deal with disaster relief, bankruptcies, tax issues, social security, Medicare and Medicaid, fair labor standards, disabilities and wills and estates. Most of their cases involve family law, which are issues like domestic violence, child custody, adoption and divorce.

Low-income citizens in this corner of the state also get civil legal assistance from the Southwest Louisiana Law Center. It gets funding from court fees and court costs, the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury and the Bar Foundation and is a United Way agency.

We urge the state to increase legal assistance funding for civil matters because of the $9.13 return on every dollar spent on the program.

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