By Eric G. Osborne
We often say that each dollar spent on legal aid saves taxpayers three to four dollars, but it may not be immediately obvious to many people how free civil legal services ultimately saves money. Today, I want to share the story of a client that I think helps illustrate this. This story is simply one of the thousands of stories that show how a tiny amount of help from a lawyer, even in non-disputed cases, can make a world of difference to a person’s life, and save taxpayers immense money.
My client was a middle-aged mother of two children. An immigrant, she speaks English as her second language. She had a rodent in her house that caused damage, so she hired a nationally recognized company to get rid of the rodent and repair the damaged woodwork. When she did so, the company’s representative said she could pay in monthly installments instead of all at once. She elected the monthly option, but what she did not understand, and what many Americans do not understand, was that these monthly payments were in fact a loan that was taken out against her name at a very high interest rate. So the company was paid in full immediately, and my client was saddled with debt at a rate exceeding 12%.
The loan would have been bad enough, but in this case, the company ended up never doing the work. My client called the local manager who agreed the work was never done, but on the back end the paperwork was never fixed. That local manager then left and a new manager came in who had no idea what had happened. My client never got a refund of the money she paid, but the loan company kept sending her monthly statements. She, in turn, did not pay them because the prior local manager had admitted the work was not done. The loan company did not know that, so it judged my client to be in default, which completely wrecked her credit. Now my client owed thousands of dollars more in interest and missed payment fees for work that was never done and she had terrible credit. When her car broke down, she was unable to get a loan to get a new car to be able to get to work to support her children.
Imagine the cost to society of all of this! A hard-working, single mother of two now found herself without transportation or the ability to get it. She was being harangued by debt collectors. And all of this was happening because a national corporation made a mistake, but my client did not even understand there was a loan out in her name or what she would need to do to correct the error.
Happily, this story ends well. I stepped in and made a series of calls, wrote letters, and sent emails, including to the legal department of the company and the loan company. Because the bureaucracy of large companies can be difficult to navigate, it took a little while, but I was persistent (as any lawyer would be). Eventually, the new local manager came out to my client’s house, confirmed the fact that the work was never done, issued a refund, and got the loan cancelled (including the cancellation of the interest and late fees). The entire matter took less than twelve hours of my time, maybe a day and a half of work. But in the end, my client got her refund and her credit history was restored. She was able to buy a new car and continue working.
Think of the cost to society had this not been resolved? My client might have had to declare bankruptcy, and all over something she purchased and never received! My client might have been unable to keep her job, and what impact would that have had on her and her two children? Would she have had to seek public assistance? How would her kids, who were still in high school, have coped? It does not take much imagination to see how the costs to society could have been immense, with major lasting repercussions.
The fact is that the cycle of poverty, once started, can be hard to stop. And yet here there was no reason at all for it to have ever begun — it was all just a misunderstanding, and a person who speaks English as a second language unable to understand the system and how to navigate it. But just a day of work from an attorney solved all of that.
Every day attorneys take on small pro bono matters like the one above, and every day their ability to help clients — often in matters that are not in dispute and that take just a little amount of time — solves major problems with just the smallest amount of legal work. And yet, how many other instances are not addressed? Even with the funding that LSC provides and local legal aid organizations raise, and even with the many attorneys who volunteer time, about half of all cases referred to legal aid are still left unaddressed. How many people then fall through the cracks? How much harm does this do, and how much does it cost?
The simple fact is that every dollar of legal services provided does multiplies and pays itself forward. This is why the work of LSC, and of the thousands of lawyers working in legal aid, and lawyers in private practice who volunteer time is so important. Their work helps hold the fabric of society together.