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Rural areas in southern Missouri to see expanded legal aid services after record-setting $125 investment

The Missouri legislature passed the appropriations bill to funds to low-income legal services in May.

A record $125 million is headed to legal aid organizations serving Missouri's poor. In southern Missouri, a portion of this windfall will be used to address a “needs gap”--including in high-poverty, rural areas where services are slim. KSMU’s Josh Conaway reports.

Across Missouri, there are four state-run legal service organizations that help lower-income residents with legal aid--like getting veterans benefits, finding housing or preparing a will. The appropriation, approved by the legislature and administered by the Supreme Court of Missouri, is the largest single payment the fund has ever seen.

Dan Wichmer is the executive director of Legal Services of Southern Missouri, based in Springfield. That branch is expected to get $38 million. Wichmer says the money will be used to hire staff and close the gap between those who apply for aid and those who receive it.

He estimates the organization can only help between 35% and 40% of those who apply for legal aid, because there just aren’t enough resources to go around.

“We turn them away mostly because we don’t have the money to hire staff and service all 43 counties at any one time. We service all 43, but it’s very difficult,” Wichmer told KSMU.

Wichmer says it’s hard to find staff and attorneys in rural areas, particularly in south-central Missouri. He says the shortage of legal services nationwide is severe. Legal Services of Southern Missouri also plans to open an office in the Cape Girardeau area.

The Legal Services Corporation’s Justice Gap report finds that out of the nearly two million requests for help the organizations receive nationwide every year, they have to turn away 49% of clients due to lack of resources.

Josh Conaway is a graduate of Missouri State University with a B.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in International Affairs. He works as a news reporter and announcer at KSMU. His favorite part of the job is exploring the rich diversity of the Ozarks and meeting people with interesting stories to share. He has a passion for history and running.