Frequently Asked Questions
In 1974 the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Act was enacted by Congress to replace the old Office of Economic Opportunity legal aid system, and to provide “minimum access” to the civil justice system, covering every county across the country. Minimum access was defined by members of Congress as one attorney for every 5000 people living at or below the poverty line as defined by Federal guidelines.
Regrettably, “minimum access” has never been achieved, and would require three times the current level of federal funding to attain that modest goal. Additional funding from state dedicated funding; the Older Americans Act and the Tennessee Bar Foundation’s IOLTA program cannot make up the difference between current levels and “minimum access.” The Campaign for Equal Justice was established nearly 20 years ago to respond to a financial crisis occasioned by Federal budget cuts. It has been an important revenue source of support for MALS.More recently, budget reductions between 2011 through 2013 widened the justice gap, resulting in a need for increased local support in order to maintain the current level of client services.
Generally, MALS’ clients under age 60 must fall within 125% of poverty income guidelines set annually by the federal government. Persons age 60 and over who are served through funding from Title III of the Older Americans Act are not required to financially qualify. Yet, most of MALS’ elderly clients are in fact “low-income,” because of the types of legal problems that are targeted. MALS also receives funding to provide legal assistance with certain housing issues for those who are not necessarily low-income. These services include legal assistance with mortgage default or foreclosure prevention, challenges to predatory lending practices and protection under the Fair Housing Act.
Increasingly, MALS’ clients are the working poor whose employment income is just high enough to disqualify them for Medicaid/TennCare and food stamp assistance, but not high enough to pay for medicine and food. They are regular folks, who often find themselves choosing between paying rent or buying needed medicine or paying a utility bill or buying food. The number of individuals and families facing these type decisions is growing exponentially.
Many potential clients learn about MALS through community education and outreach activities. MALS staff distributes brochures and legal education material at nursing homes, senior centers, public hearings, abuse shelters, community fairs and expos, and during presentations to community groups. We also raise awareness through local television and radio spots and various other collaborative events and functions..
All clients currently receive legal assistance and representation without charge. However, clients are asked to pay or reimburse MALS for filing fees, court costs, costs of medical exams or records, discovery costs, etc., related to the handling of their case. Fees and costs may be advanced by MALS on the client’s behalf in order to expedite the case..
No. MALS handles no criminal cases and shares none of the state and local funds available to the public defender. Unlike with criminal cases, there is no legal entitlement to counsel for those with a civil case..
No. MALS is a Tennessee not-for-profit corporation with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, chartered to provide civil legal services without fee to low income and elderly residents of Shelby, Fayette, Tipton and Lauderdale Counties.
No. While some federal funding opportunities have expanded in homeless prevention and domestic violence, the Legal Services Corporation, the primary source of MALS’ support, has declined and never achieved the minimal access benchmark of one attorney for every 5,000 poor people. Given the fact that since the year 2000, there has been a 31% increase in poverty in MALS’ service area that computes to an estimated one attorney for every 12,000 persons living below the poverty level. Comparatively speaking, there is one attorney for every 360 persons in the general population.
There are fundraising efforts conducted by legal services providers across the country. In the southeast alone, Atlanta and Nashville have conducted very successful campaigns for the last several years. For example, Legal Aid in Nashville raises more than $780,000 annually and Atlanta, nearly $2 million.
MALS takes cases no one else will – either because the subject matter is within the realm of poverty law issues that legal services advocates are specifically trained to handle, or because the client lacks the resources to pay a private attorney. MALS routinely refers “fee-generating” cases to the private bar, including personal injury, workers compensation, etc.
Lawyers have a professional interest in MALS and the quality representation for low-income people which it provides. Easing access to the justice system, bringing in those who have historically been excluded, strengthens our democratic system. Bar leaders like Irvin Bogatin and Emmett Marston were among those who were responsible for the incorporation of MALS in 1970. The private bar associations in Memphis and its surrounding areas continue to share that special link and partnership with MALS today.
The fact is that pro bono volunteers are an important source of representation for poor people in Memphis and cannot be replaced by dollars. In fact, MALS has found that pro bono volunteers do both, donate their time and money. There will likely never be enough funding for legal services to hire sufficient staff to meet all of the need. When you contribute to MALS, you contribute to experienced in-house staff while maintaining MALS’ ability to efficiently refer hundreds more cases to volunteers, provide those volunteers with training, mentoring, and litigation support, and ensure high standards of quality continue to be met. In addition, MALS’ volunteer attorneys receive Professional Liability Insurance up to $2,000,000.00 on cases referred to them and Tennessee CLE credits that are awarded based on the number of hours donated through the pro bono program.
There are not enough attorneys and paralegals to handle all of the cases presented by financially eligible individuals. As a result, legal aid firms like MALS utilize a system of case acceptance approved by its Board of Directors, emphasizing access to justice for the most vulnerable populations to maintain or secure the basic needs of safety, food, health-care, shelter and income. Although every potential client’s case is important to that client and saying “no” is not easy, scarce resources dictate hard decisions. An uncontested divorce with no children or property involved simply should not take precedence over a divorce involving spousal abuse, or a threatened immediate loss of shelter, food, or nursing home care.
The most important need of MALS is to maintain a highly qualified and dedicated staff. Paying a reasonable salary to its staff is essential to the provision of high quality legal assistance to its clients. Dollars donated to MALS will mean continued services for the low-income community.
MALS is proud of its status as a law firm and the talent of its staff. We are regularly complimented by members of the bench and bar on the high caliber of representation provided by our advocates. Our attorneys are graduates of both national and state law schools, including University of Memphis, University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Success rates are high. Typically, MALS’ attorneys are successful in about 80% of the litigated cases handled.
MALS encourages you to contribute to the financial health of MALS by sending your tax-deductible contribution to:
Memphis Area Legal Services
22 N. Front St., 11th Floor
Memphis, TN 38103
or through MALS’ secure website at: https://malsi.org/
Memphis Area Legal Services is annually audited by the independent CPA firm of Watkins Uiberall, PLLC. Current and prior years’ audits are available for inspection at MALS’ main office. MALS’ Board and management are confident that their efforts to monitor expenditures and to maintain fiscal integrity continue to be a strength.