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The return on investing in access to justice

This story in the National Law Journal is just the latest example of how legal services programs and even legal services funding organizations are emphasizing the social “return on investment” that is generated by the work that they do. From the article:

Page 14 of Legal Services Corp.’s proposed 2014 budget request to Congress bears the face of a 7-month-old infant wearing a baby helmet to form his skull. He represents a boy (identified by the pseudonym, “Ben”) whose application for the helmet his insurer denied as a “non-covered service” until legal aid took action through out-of-court negotiations.

Members of Congress and their staffs will also see a photo of a gray-haired woman illustrating the story of an 87-year-old retired home-health care worker who was a victim of predatory lending. And also a photo of an Iraq War veteran who performed counterinsurgency work overseas but who fell victim to a scam that ruined his credit.

Facing scarce funding next year, following years of lawyer layoffs and service cutbacks across the nation, the LSC is placing more emphasis on the stories of people like Ben.

“We’re always working on how we tell the story and how we explain to people why it’s so important,” LSC president Jim Sandman said.

This is nothing new in the larger nonprofit world. In fact, it is becoming the norm these days to focus on outcomes. Some funders even take a venture philanthropy approach to strengthening existing organizations. There are even well-established business school programs on social entrepreneurship that bring the tools of the business world to bear on intractable problems that have avoided traditional solutions.

The moral and legal case for civil legal services is well established. But there is  no civil legal services analogue to the Vera Institute’s cost-benefit tools for policymakers and advocates in the criminal justice system. Bringing more of these newer tools to bear on the challenges in the civil arena is both a challenge and an opportunity.