Missouri legal aid services will receive an unprecedented $126 million in funding this year thanks to a law on punitive damage awards. (Getty Images)
A fund Missouri legislators created 20 years ago to provide low-income residents with civil legal services received an unprecedented $126 million in funding this year.
Last year’s budget appropriation was $2.7 million.
On May 6, the legislature passed a supplemental budget bill appropriating the funds to the state’s “basic civil legal services fund,” which is administered by the Missouri Supreme Court. Gov. Michael Parson signed it into law on May 13, and the funds were available immediately.
The money will go towards four legal service organizations: Legal Aid of Western Missouri, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, Legal Services of Southern Missouri and Mid-Missouri Legal Services. As the 2003 legislation outlines, the organizations will prioritize cases involving families and children, domestic violence, seniors and qualification for benefits under the Social Security Act.
The massive budget allocation comes almost entirely from a $2.1 billion judgment against Johnson & Johnson in St. Louis Circuit Court for ovarian cancers caused by its talc products. The judgment became final after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up in June 2021.
From that judgment, $484 million was deposited into the Missouri’s Tort Victims’ Compensation Fund. By law, 26% of all payments deposited into the compensation fund must be transferred to the basic civil legal services fund.
“This appropriation is an investment in the future of eligible low-income Missourians and their families that will give them better access to the basic civil legal services they need,” Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson said in a news release.
During the past four fiscal years, dollars passed from the tort victims compensation fund to the legal services fund have provided more than $4.8 million to help the state’s legal aid offices serve clients, according to the Missouri Supreme Court.
The other primary sources for the fund include the $30 of each annual enrollment fee paid by attorneys licensed in Missouri, specified amounts of the fees paid for filing court cases and matching federal Medicaid funds.
To be eligible for services, an individual typically must have an income at or below 125% of the federal poverty level, about $17,000 a year for an individual and just under $35,000 annually for a family of four.
Missouri’s four programs closed more than 16,000 cases in 2021. Of those, approximately 32% involved family law, juvenile and education issues; another 32% involved health, housing and income maintenance issues; and 23% involved criminal expungements under Missouri law.
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