Counting-cash-money Photo Credit: iStock

Legal aid groups are touting a new study that shows a more than 700 percent return on investment for the three nonprofit agencies that provide legal services to Delaware’s poor, as leaders seek to restore state funding that was slashed from last year’s budget.

Released Thursday during a Wilmington press conference, $18.1 million in state, federal and private funding for the organizations generated $149.2 million in economic benefits and averted costs between 2013 and 2015.

The independent report was commissioned by the Combined Campaign for Justice, which raises about $1 million each year to support the Community Legal Aid Society Inc., Delaware Volunteer Legal Services Inc. and Legal Services Corp. of Delaware, which serve more than 5,000 poor and disabled residents in the First State.

However, representatives said the organizations struggle to meet the needs of more than 8,300 low-income people who would qualify for services, leading to higher rates of homelessness, increased health care costs and instances of domestic abuse.

“It really is a matter of pay a little now or a lot later—investing in civil legal services is an important upstream intervention to help vulnerable populations stay housed, fed and free of domestic violence,” said Daniel G. Atkins, executive director of CLASI. “It is not a question of whether we can afford to adequately fund legal services, but rather we can’t afford not to.”

The report’s release comes as lawmakers in the state capital are mulling the state’s budget ahead of a July 30 deadline for a final agreement on a package of spending and revenue bills for the upcoming fiscal year.

Last year’s negotiations resulted in a 10 percent reduction to the $600,000 that had been allotted to the three agencies, forcing the judiciary’s Administrative Office of the Courts to pick up the remainder. Civil legal aid was also hit by 20 percent across-the-board cuts to grant-in-aid spending, as the General Assembly scrambled at the last minute to close a roughly $400 million budget gap.

Atkins said he plans to use the study’s results as a pitch to remind lawmakers of the social value in the services the organizations provide. He said he hopes to return to pre-2018 spending levels this year, with hopes of securing increases in spending in the future.

State funding accounts for nearly $1 million out of the approximately $7 million in a patchwork of state, federal and private dollars that fund civil legal aid each year. In addition to the money raised by the CCJ, the groups receive annual contributions from Delaware’s legal and business communities and the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program, or IOLTA, which pools funds from short-term interest-bearing accounts that hold clients’ money.

Atkins said it has been “a really good year” for private funding, thanks in part to a number of large one-time donations. CCJ also received a grant from the Longwood Foundation, which helped to fund the study, to create a professional fundraising position.

However, Atkins is expecting contributions from the federal government to remain flat, or even decline, in the coming years, and he said the study’s findings show that investing in legal aid is a smart economic move for the state.

“Now’s the time to make good investments. The state budget is a little looser than it’s been,” Atkins said. “Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

The study, titled “Social Return on Investment From Legal Aid Services: A Statewide Analysis,” was prepared by Moravian College professor James Teufel, Mercyhurst University professor Kristofer Gossett and Robert Hayman, professor emeritus at Widener University Delaware Law School and a former staff attorney for Legal Aid of Western Missouri in Kansas City.