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Doug Kays
Doug Kays

Business Spotlight: Justice for All

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While the name Sam Hamra is new to the Legal Services of Southern Missouri headquarters building, the nonprofit legal aid organization is no stranger to the Springfield attorney and owner of Hamra Enterprises.

Hamra was a vocal leader toward the formation of providing free legal aid to low-income individuals – the core function of Legal Services 36 years after its founding – and he served as the group’s first board president and was actively involved in its early years.

Last month, Legal Services officials dedicated its Springfield office, 809 N. Campbell Ave., as the Sam F. Hamra Center for Justice in recognition of Hamra’s time and financial commitments, including a recent donation for an undisclosed amount that represents the largest the organization has received to date.

“Legal Services has been Sam’s labor of love, and its value are his values,” said John Danforth, former Missouri attorney general and U.S. senator, in a letter written to Legal Services of Southern Missouri.

The labor of Hamra and others began as the Legal Aid Association of Greene County, and it quickly expanded to serve legal needs for the underrepresented in seven counties. Today, the organization covers southern Missouri down into the Bootheel and represents the second-largest geographic area of the state’s four legal aid offices, behind St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia.

“It’s gone from a little, teeny seed to cover 43 counties,” says Doug Kays, a 32-year employee of Legal Services of Southern Missouri and its executive director since 1980. “The rule of law is at the heart of American democracy. If you don’t have an opportunity to go to court and have a lawyer, then that defeats the ‘justice for all’ as we say in the pledge of allegiance.”

Act of Congress
In 1978, the office joined the ranks of 134 legal aid operations nationwide that now receive federal funding through the Legal Services Corp. created by Congress. This year, Legal Services received nearly half of its $4.2 million operating budget in federal funds to handle its roughly 2,500 cases per year. State funding accounts for nearly a quarter of its budget – through a $10 cut of every lawsuit filed in Missouri shared among the four legal aid offices statewide – while leftovers from certain class action suits under a program called Cy Pres comprise roughly 8 percent. Other funding sources are in private donations, a percentage of interest on lawyers’ trust accounts and the Missouri Bar, which gives $20 of each member’s annual dues to statewide legal aid efforts.

Current funding levels are about 20 percent below the 2010 budget, Kays says.

“We do not have enough resources to help every low-income person with every legal problem,” he says of the 10,000 to 12,000 applications the southern Missouri office receives each year. Through its review process, Legal Services accepts about 25 percent of its applications.

“We have to triage the cases,” Kays says. “We ask, ‘Is this a case that is really urgent, that really needs help and does it have legal merit?’”

Legal Services administrators have three mechanisms to route the approved-cases: In-house staff lawyers, a pool of 140 private attorneys working pro bono or the 316 lawyers in its Judicare Program that pays private lawyers $50 per hour, a reduced amount compared to a typical private practice starting rate of $150 per hour.

“People who practice poverty law do it because it’s their passion. They don’t do it for the salaries,” says Sharon Alexander, Legal Services’ development director, who is largely responsible for generating revenue through grants and contracts to fund the casework.

Defensive posture
With 15 lawyers on staff, 10 who work in Springfield, about half of Legal Services’ cases are in family law, largely domestic violence but also human trafficking and stalking cases. Consumer, juvenile and housing disputes account for about 37 percent of cases, while health, income maintenance and other legal matters represent the remainder.

“Generally, we’re in a defensive posture,” Kays says. “We’re trying to defend a lawsuit against an unfair landlord or an unfair creditor.”

Economic conditions of recent years have brought a rise in consumer cases, especially in foreclosures, payday lending and “zombie” debts, which Kays describes as consumer debt that has been acquired by a company but actually no longer exists. In those cases, the consumer debt is often an amount previously discharged in bankruptcy court or the result of identity theft, and Legal Services clients simply need an attorney to prove it in court.

Alexander says Legal Services also has relationships with community action agencies, such as the Crosslines food pantry and the Harmony House domestic violence shelter, to refer clients for additional services.

“We don’t just try to solve their legal problems. We assess all of the issues going on,” she says. “We may be able to keep them in their apartment, but they don’t have the funds to purchase food. It’s a holistic approach.”

At various times, Legal Services attorneys also will coordinate with the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission, state attorney general and public prosecutors as they work their cases.

“We’re more than a law firm,” Kays says. “We’re a hybrid of a social services agency and a law firm.”[[In-content Ad]]

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