2011 Walk to the Hill
Justice Gants, Bar Leaders Declare Strong Support for Civil Legal Aid
Walk to the Hill 2011 Brings More than 500 Private Attorneys to the State House
BOSTON (February 22, 2011) – Justice Ralph Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court kicked off the 12th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid this morning by calling on the governor and lawmakers to provide justice for all Massachusetts residents.
“Hundreds of thousands of school children in this Commonwealth began their school day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which declares this nation to be indivisible with liberty and justice for all, not justice for those with enough in their bank account to afford an attorney,” said Justice Gants, who is co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Initiative and the first SJC sitting justice to attend Walk to the Hill. “This year, like every year, we walk to this house on the hill to insist that the words ‘justice for all’ are more than just words,” he said.
The goal of Walk to the Hill – one of the best attended lobby days in the state – is to protect critical state funding for programs that provide civil legal aid to low-income Massachusetts residents. It was co-sponsored by the Equal Justice Coalition, Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association, and 30 local and specialty bar associations.
Following the speaking program, attorneys visited their legislators and asked them to maintain level funding of $9.5 million for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation line item (MLAC, 0321-1600) in the FY12 budget.
“We are incredibly grateful to have such a broad base of support in the Massachusetts legal community,” said Lonnie Powers, MLAC’s executive director. “Today’s strong showing sends a powerful message to legislators that protecting state funding for civil legal aid is critical to the delivery of justice in the Commonwealth.”
Level funding for MLAC is more critical than ever this year, as legal aid programs are struggling to meet demand due to a 66 percent decrease in revenue from the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program, MLAC’s other funding source, since FY08. Over the past three years, MLAC has had to cut grants to the 17 programs it funds by 55 percent.
The speaking program also featured Boston Bar Association President Donald Frederico and Massachusetts Bar Association President-Elect Richard Campbell, who both called on the legislature to protect the state’s funding for civil legal aid.
“Although the need for legal aid to the poor has never been greater, no group has been harder hit by the economic downturn than legal aid programs that provide services in cases where the most elemental issues of human sustenance are at stake,” said Frederico. “We hope and trust that the women and men of the Massachusetts legislature will recognize this year, as they have in years past, that the state needs to continue its support for level funding of legal services in order to preserve the rights of poor people to equal access under the law.”
According to Campbell, “Inadequate funding forces legal aid programs to limit caseloads, effectively denying help to the Commonwealth’s most needy individuals. We must do more for this vulnerable population.”
The final speaker was Natasha Torres of Oxford, Mass., a client of the Legal Assistance Corporation of Central Massachusetts, who shared her emotional foreclosure story.
“I was terrified,” said Torres of when she received the auction notice for her home. “But I’m happy to report that four years later, we’re still living in our home and that my lawyer, Andrea Park, has done an amazing job of keeping us there.”Currently, Torres and her mother are waiting to hear about getting a federal loan modification.
As private attorneys, Walk to the Hill participants have no direct stake in civil legal aid funding. However, according to Sandy Moskowitz, chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, they see firsthand the effects of the civil legal aid shortage and understand the disadvantages faced by pro se litigants who appear in court unrepresented.
Moskowitz also stressed the need for level funding of the civil legal aid line item. “In today’s stressed economic environment, the demand for civil legal aid is greater than ever,” he said. “At the same time, those same economic conditions have led to a substantial reduction in the non-state funding sources for these programs. In order to avoid even greater, devastating program cuts, it is essential that the state maintain its funding level for these programs.”