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Memphis Area Legal Services loses $1.7 million in grant funding;

Memphis’ main provider of civil legal services for its underserved community will lose their principal source of funding – around $1.7 million – after a congressionally-financed organization concluded Memphis Area Legal Services is no longer up to the task.

MALS was informed of Legal Services Corporation’s decision, along with its plans to shift its financial support to Jackson, Tenn. in a correspondence on April 5.

“MALS has not shown an ability to improve program operations, stabilize the program from continued declines in both services and funding, or engage in best practices for effectively and efficiently providing civil legal services under the grant,” wrote LSC president Ron Flagg.

The deadline to submit transition plans to West Tennessee Legal Services and finalize services is Friday, April 26. The Jackson-based firm will do its best to fill the gap and will begin to pick up the extra workload on July 1.

“We look forward to working closely with MALS during this transition period. Suffice to say, our commitment to our Jackson-area clients remains as strong as ever, and we look forward to being of service to clients in the greater Memphis region,” said WTLS Deputy Director Caitlin Hakim in a statement.

Furthermore, the letter states the firm doesn’t “meet the criteria” to continue to receive the grant. In addition to LSC’s standards, it also includes the American Bar Association’s yardstick.

According to The Daily Memphian, MALS chairman Brian Heim confirmed the letter.

MALS provides civil legal services for individuals and families facing foreclosure, eviction or homelessness. It also handles cases related to domestic violence, denial of health care or assistance, consumer fraud and predatory lending.

The lion’s share of the firm’s clients – 80 percent in 2022 – are women. 

However, MALS case closures are also in decline. 

The same year, the firm closed 1,625 cases, compared to 4,062 closed cases in the Jackson office. It isn’t just a short term trend, either. Over the past five years, MALS closures have dropped in half. 

Fundraising efforts and staffing stalled also. As a consequence, the firm’s reliance on federal dollars increased.

MALS has been under the interim direction of Judge Loyce Lambert-Ryan since February. The former Shelby County General Sessions Court justice replaced executive director Cindy Ettinghoff, who left the post voluntarily.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, is expected to discuss the matter with LSC brass in Washington, D.C. today.

Legal Services Corporation is a seeking $1.8 billion for fiscal year 2025 – the same year MALS can reapply for funding. Grants cover a six-month period. MALS received its last infusion on Jan. 1.

Congress established LCS in 1974 to provide legal aid for civil cases to people who could not afford representation. It currently funds 131 nonprofit legal aid programs.

MALS was established shortly after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 by then Burch, Porter & Johnson attorney Mike Cody.

The last city to have funding pulled was Detroit, five years ago.

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