As Americans, we grow up with an awareness that one of the most fundamental tenets of our democracy is our system of justice. The first sentence of our Constitution states that one of the document’s primary purposes is to “establish justice.”
We associate justice with words like “fairness” and “equality,” but we may not always think of it as directly related to our economic prosperity. And yet, it most certainly is.
A new study commissioned by The Florida Bar Foundation adds to a large body of evidence that supports this assertion. The study found that every dollar invested in civil legal aid in Florida resulted in more than $7 in economic impacts in 2015. Similar findings have come from studies in many U.S. states, including one issued in 2010 by Florida TaxWatch, which conducted a separate analysis.
The most recent study found $600 million in total annual economic benefits from civil legal aid, including more than $264 million in income for Floridians obtained with the help of legal aid and pro bono attorneys.
Think of the veteran who has earned benefits through service to our country but has been unable to obtain them on his or her own. Or perhaps your disabled neighbor should be getting Social Security disability but instead is scraping by because he or she doesn’t have the wherewithal to submit a successful application.
Legal aid helps these and many other deserving people secure Social Security and Social Security disability payments, Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, veterans’ and other federal benefits, as well as unemployment compensation and wages. This income generates an additional $274.8 million in impacts resulting from the economic multiplier effect as that income flows into Florida communities like ours, creating jobs and shoring up home values.
Meanwhile, the savings legal aid accomplishes for communities are substantial, with about $60.4 million of costs avoided statewide from positive trends such as reduced homelessness, fewer police calls and reduced burden on the court system. Avoided costs from domestic violence alone account for $6.9 million in savings thanks to the work of legal aid attorneys in helping victims obtain restraining orders, divorces, and child support, or otherwise move on with their lives.
Unfortunately, total funding for civil legal aid in Florida is at a 10-year low. Locally, The Florida Bar Foundation is one of several funding sources for the Legal Services of North Florida, providing a general support grant in 2016-17 of $98,171. In addition the Foundation provided $90,294 to support The North Florida Center for Equal Justice, whose service area also includes Escambia County.
But these grants are a fraction of what they once were. This is because the Foundation’s primary source of revenue is from the pooled interest on lawyers’ trust accounts, and interest rates on these deposits have been near zero since the Great Recession. The Foundation’s grants to civil legal aid organizations statewide have fallen by about 80 percent since 2010 and are expected to fall even further. This leaves the vast majority of those who qualify for civil legal aid with nowhere to turn, in spite of the approximately1.7 million hours of volunteer service by Florida lawyers each year.
The Florida Bar, The Florida Bar Foundation and the Florida Supreme Court are hard at work on solutions to this justice gap through the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice. But they alone can’t solve this societal problem. As a lawyer and former leader of The Florida Bar, I call on our local business, philanthropic, humanitarian and community leaders to recognize that the challenge of equal justice is one in which we should all be invested. Besides being at the heart of our democracy, it’s good economic policy, and it adds to our prosperity as a community.
Alan B. Bookman is an attorney with Emmanuel, Sheppard & Condon and resident of Pensacola.
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