As it does every year during budget season, the Equal Justice Coalition—a collaboration of the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation—drew nearly 700 attorneys from the legal community January 26 to the State House to lobby legislators for increased civil legal aid funding. Since the November election, civil legal aid programs around the state are dealing with an influx of people seeking assistance from an already dramatically under-funded system. In response, legal aid advocates are seeking a $5 million increase in state funding, which would bring the state’s annual investment in civil legal aid up to $23 million.
“Legal aid organizations are being deluged with requests for help from immigrants who seek to become naturalized citizens, who fear the loss of their work permits, their housing, and their access to education,” Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants noted in remarks to the attorneys gathered in the Hall of Flags. “The poor and the elderly who survive on food stamps, Social Security, or transitional aid for dependent children will reach out to legal services when their benefits are terminated or reduced. The working poor and elderly whose health care may be put at risk by the repeal or erosion of the Affordable Care Act will look to legal services to protect their access to health benefits. Elder abuse, the loss of unemployment benefits, consumer fraud, eviction, domestic violence—so many problems, and for each the poor look to legal services for help.”
Gov. Baker has recommended a one percent increase of $180,000 to the current $18 million appropriation for legal aid. While any increase in funding is welcome, the sum is far below what is needed to meet the demand for services in an average year. As it stands now, legal aid organizations statewide are collectively turning away 64 percent of eligible people who come to them seeking assistance because there simply are not enough resources to help them.
This year, legal aid organizations are also bracing for potential cuts in federal funding, lending an even greater sense of urgency to the lobby day.
Boston Bar Association President Carol Starkey told the gathering that she is concerned about proposed federal cuts not just to legal aid, but to allocations for programs that curb violence against women and community policing programs as well.
“It’s hard not to read into those suggested spending cuts as a message that the poor and the disenfranchised do not have an ally in our highest levels of federal government,” she said.
Funding shortfalls have real world consequences for families and individuals like Bill, a Boston retiree who abruptly lost his MassHealth coverage due to a system error just as he was about to start a life-saving treatment regimen for Hepatitis C. Despite repeated attempts, Bill was not able to solve the issue on his own. Meanwhile, as time passed, he grew increasingly panicked about his health and the risks of delayed treatment. So Bill contacted Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) for assistance. He was connected with an attorney in the GBLS Elder, Health, and Disability unit who resolved the issue within a week. Soon afterward, Bill resumed treatment for hepatitis C and, as he told the crowd at Walk to the Hill, he now enjoys a clean bill of health from his doctor.
“When they told me I was healthy, that the treatment had worked—the first person I thought of was [my attorney],” he said. “I know I wouldn’t be here and be healthy without her help.
“Thank God for legal aid,” he added. “I’m so grateful for what they did for me.”
Be sure to watch this space or follow us on Twitter (@equaljusticema) for the latest information and action alerts related to state funding for civil legal aid. Your voice matters!
Are you looking for a meaningful pro bono opportunity that fits your schedule and taps your expertise? Look no further than Mass Legal Answers Online!
What is it?
Mass Legal Answers Online is a virtual legal advice clinic that is part of the American Bar Association’s Free Legal Answers project. It’s a secure website where low-income Massachusetts residents post their civil legal questions and volunteer attorneys answer them, all through the same website. It launched in Massachusetts on November 16, 2016.
How does it work?
- You can choose the questions you want to answer–at any time, and from any location that works for you.
- It’s a limited scope service–the clients know in advance that your assistance is restricted to answering their civil legal question, and that you will not go to court with them or prepare any paperwork.
- There is no required time commitment, although we encourage you to answer at least one question a month.
- It’s open to all attorneys in good standing who are licensed to practice law in Massachusetts, or registered for pro bono status with the Board of Bar Overseers, including in house counsel and retired attorneys
- Malpractice coverage is provided to volunteer attorneys for legal guidance provided through the website.
How can I join?
It’s simple! Register as a volunteer at www.masslao.org.
Equal Justice Coalition Appoints New Director
Laura Booth to helm partnership between private bar, legal services
BOSTON, August 30, 2016 – The Equal Justice Coalition (EJC) announces the appointment of Laura Booth as the EJC’s director effective September 14. Laura brings nearly two decades of experience in human services and public policy, most recently serving as campaign manager of the Committee to re-elect State Representative Marjorie Decker. Laura replaces Deborah Silva, who left the EJC in July to become executive director of the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
“Laura brings great experience to the EJC,” said EJC Chair Louis Tompros. “She is dedicated to improving the lives of low-income residents of Massachusetts, and her experience in human services, public policy and with the legislative process will play a vital role in expanding our efforts to build new communities of support for legal aid funding.”
“I am thrilled to join the Equal Justice Coalition and look forward to advocating for the critical services provided by legal aid programs and engaging and expanding our circle of partners,” Laura said. “I have long held the EJC in the highest regard and I welcome the opportunity to contribute to its important work on behalf of low-income individuals and families. ”
Prior to her work with Representative Decker’s re-election campaign, Laura served as Director of Family Services at Heading Home, Inc., and was the Director of Programs at Women’s Lunch Place. She also worked at Rosie’s Place, the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee, and in the office of State Senator Anthony Galluccio. Laura earned a master’s degree in public policy from Tufts University and a bachelor’s degree in human services from University of Massachusetts, Boston.
About the Equal Justice Coalition
The Equal Justice Coalition is a collaboration of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, Massachusetts Bar Association and Boston Bar Association. The EJC includes representatives from bar associations across the Commonwealth, law firms, and the legal services community, who work together to protect the state appropriation for civil legal aid, which funds programs that provide legal advice and representation to low-income Massachusetts residents facing civil legal problems.
State Senator Bruce Tarr to Visit Housing Court
BOSTON, August 4, 2016—State Senator Bruce Tarr of Gloucester will visit Housing Court at the Brooke Courthouse in Boston at 9:30am on Thursday, August 11, 2016.
Barbara Zimbel, a civil legal aid attorney from Greater Boston Legal Services, will give the senator a tour of Housing Court, which has jurisdiction over civil and criminal actions relating to the health, safety, or welfare of the occupants or owners of residential housing. They will be joined by Massachusetts Bar Association President Robert W. Harnais, Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation Executive Director Lonnie Powers, and Meehan Boyle attorney John Carroll, who is also a member of the Legislative Committee of the Equal Justice Coalition.
“Most of those appearing in Housing Court cannot afford to hire an attorney to defend themselves in foreclosure or eviction proceedings,” said Powers. “We know that two-thirds of those who are facing eviction and have an attorney are able to keep their housing while only one-third of those without legal representation are able to do so.”
Harnais added: “It’s one thing to read about the incredible difference legal aid makes when it comes to improving access to justice. But seeing is believing, and the unfortunate reality is you can see the effects of inadequate funding for legal aid every day in our courthouses. With so many of our citizens fighting for their homes and their safety without a lawyer, it is clear we need to do better. No one should ever walk into a court alone where their home or their well-being is in jeopardy.”
Earlier this year, the Equal Justice Coalition released a video about the need for civil legal aid in Housing Court. It can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ku9EUyY2HZY
About the Equal Justice Coalition
The Equal Justice Coalition, a collaboration of the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), works to increase the state appropriation for civil legal aid through MLAC (line item 0321-1600).