Guest Series: Michael Figgins Legal Aid Director

January 12, 2012 7 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville consistently offers the opportunity for our readers to absorb the editorials, personal accounts, and vocal opinions of some of the key players in the decision making process of our community. This week, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA) Executive Director Michael Figgins explains why a strong legal aid program important to Jacksonville.

In today’s economy it’s no secret that more and more of our friends and neighbors are struggling to make ends meet.  In social services circles, the phenomenon is called the “new poor”:  People who were formerly middle class who, due to a job loss or an illness are now living in poverty.  I’m sure you know someone who is struggling due to a lost job, a medical emergency, or a sequence of events that has left them in a terrible position financially.  That person may even be you.  

If you were living in poverty, what would you do if you were served with eviction or foreclosure papers?  What would you do if you were in a domestic violence situation and needed a protective order or a divorce?  What if you needed a guardianship so you could care for an elderly relative?  What if you were wrongfully denied disability or Medicaid benefits?  If you were struggling just to meet your basic needs, how would you afford the attorney you need to help you?

When low-income people need help with a legal issue and cannot afford to hire a private attorney, they turn to legal services organizations that provide free civil legal services.  If legal aid cannot help them, they more often than not just don’t receive help.  Fearful of a system they don’t understand, they may ignore the problem completely until it is too late to remedy it.  They may venture into the legal system and inadvertently waive their rights, or end up face-to-face with a well-prepared attorney on the opposing side.  Many studies show that persons who go to court without an attorney receive poor outcomes.  For example, CQ Researcher discussed in its November 2011 issue a set of studies showing that tenants who went to court with an attorney were up to nineteen times more likely to receive a good outcome in their case than those who went to court without representation.  Another study on domestic violence cases showed that only 1/3 of women received protective orders in court when they were unrepresented, as opposed to a success rate of 83% when women were represented.  The issue is clear:  A lack of free legal services in a community effectively denies low-income people access to the civil justice system.

When an entire socio-economic class is effectively denied access to the court system, what does that say about a community?  Every community has among its citizens those who live in poverty, but Duval County has more than its fair share:  Poverty level income for a family of four is a little over $22,000.00 per year, or a little less than $11,000.00 per year for an individual.  According the United States Census, 10.2% of families in Duval County live in poverty, higher than the national average of 9.9%.  With an official United States Census population of 802,843 people, the Duval County poverty numbers are staggering:  13.5% of individuals live in poverty.  19% of Jacksonville’s 202,582 children live in poverty; that’s 38,490 children.  And 10.5% of adults 65 and older live in poverty, or 83,627 people.  These friends and neighbors often need help that only an attorney can provide, yet they are the people who can least afford to hire one.  In addition, in a “perfect storm” scenario, as the need for free civil legal services increases, the funding with which to provide them decreases.  Due to a lack of resources nationally, only about 20% of the people who need free civil legal services are able to access them.  

Why should communities and their citizens support legal services and ensure the legal aid in their community is strong?  Other than assuring all citizens access to our nation’s civil justice system, there are compelling economic reasons.  In 2010, the research group Florida TaxWatch studied the impact of legal services on the economy of the State of Florida.  According to Florida TaxWatch, the total economic impact of civil legal assistance on the Florida economy is significant:

* Created over 3,300 jobs in the state economy;

* Produced $250 million of output in the state economy;

* Provided $297 million of disposable income; and

* Generated $4.78 of economic impact for every $1 spent on legal aid by Federal, State and
   local governments, the Florida Bar Foundation, grants from community and other
   foundations, and charitable donations.

A strong legal aid delivering services in our community can also help our community’s economy.  

The implicit promise to the citizens of the United States is that of “liberty and justice for all.”  A strong legal aid helps ensure that “justice for all” is available to all people.  

Editorial by Michael Figgins

Michael Figgins joined Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA) as Executive Director in 1995.  He received his B.A. in History from Arizona State University in 1977, and his J.D. from the School of Law at Gonzaga University in 1980. Mr. Figgins has spent his entire career providing legal services to the poor, serving 23 years as Executive Director of a legal aid program.  Prior to joining JALA's staff, Mr. Figgins was the Executive Director of Western Nebraska Legal Services.  He has practiced as both a staff attorney and a managing attorney with Dakota Plains Legal Services in Mission, South Dakota, and served as the managing attorney for Community Legal Services in Yuma, Arizona. Mr. Figgins is a member of the Florida Bar Association, the Jacksonville Bar Association, the Arizona Bar Association, and the Nebraska Bar Association. In addition to his administrative duties as Executive Director of JALA, Mr. Figgins also maintains an active caseload, primarily in the areas of Fair Housing and Consumer Rights.