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Politics & Government

New Law Gives Legal Aid for the Poor a Boost

Legal aid for the poor and disadvantaged is slated to get more funding under a measure approved by the legislature and signed by the governor this month.

Court fees are slated to increase in order to set aside more money to help eligible Pennsylvanians pay their legal bills when settling basic needs regarding things like housing, health and safety. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tara Toohil (R-Luzerne), passed with nearly unanimous support in the House and Senate.

The issue of a civil “justice gap” has been kicked around in Pennsylvania for decades. This year, a panel suggested that state lawmakers boost civil legal services funding by $50 million.

The latest move to increase court filing fees is expected to yield just $2.4 million more for legal aid, but it was widely considered to be the most immediate way to boost funding.

“We’re not talking about great amounts of money going into this,” said Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery), a longtime supporter.

“It’s a good investment,” Greenleaf said, citing a report commissioned by a board overseen by the state Supreme Court to provide legal services to the disadvantaged. The study found the cost of subsidizing legal aid is dwarfed by the loss to the state’s economy if Medicaid and veterans’ benefits and housing needs are unfulfilled.    

“It saves lives,” Greenleaf said of legal aid. “It deals with issues that I think anyone who heard the facts of those cases would say, ‘Yeah, we should provide assistance for that person, for that particular need.’”