Chief Justice Ireland Joins Appeal for Civil Legal Aid Funding

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More than 500 attorneys participated in Walk to the Hill 2014. View more photos here.

BOSTON (January 30, 2014) – In a speech at the State House’s Great Hall this morning, Chief Justice Roderick Ireland addressed more than 500 lawyers who gathered to participate in the 15th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. Justice Ireland asked participants to urge their legislators to support increased state funding for civil legal aid.

“Civil legal aid attorneys help to level the playing field,” said Ireland. “They are committed to the ideal of equal access to justice for all. However, they are forced to turn away over half of the people who come to them for help. We are here today to help balance the scales of justice.”

The Chief Justice’s remarks came one week after Governor Deval Patrick recommended $14 million for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) in his fiscal year 2015 budget proposal. MLAC, which is the largest single funding source for civil legal aid in Massachusetts, received a $13 million appropriation from the state this fiscal year.

The goal of this year’s Walk to the Hill is to increase state funding for organizations that provide advice and representation to low-income residents facing critical civil legal issues such as eviction and foreclosure; child custody and support issues; denial of health care coverage; unemployment benefits appeals; domestic violence; and elder abuse. Programs have been struggling to meet demand as other funding sources have dried up in recent years. The Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts Program, which provided $17 million in funding for civil legal aid in FY08, is expected to provide just $2.6 million in FY14, an 85 percent drop. MLAC has cut grants to the 16 legal aid programs it funds by 51 percent since FY08.

Malden resident Charlene Julce explained how her family’s dream of homeownership was nearly shattered when their bank illegally foreclosed on their home. Charlene, a first generation Haitian-American, sought assistance from Greater Boston Legal Services, which helped her successfully sue the bank.

“There is simply no way my family and I could have figured out how to keep our home without the help of Greater Boston Legal Services,” said Julce. “The notices from our bank were complicated and we didn’t even know what our options were for help. My family might be facing homelessness today if it weren’t for the legal assistance we received.”

“Civil legal aid spares individuals and families the indignities and hardship that can occur when their only avenue to justice is through the court system, and yet they lack the resources needed to obtain a fair hearing,” said Lonnie Powers, MLAC’s executive director. “I applaud Chief Justice Ireland for recognizing that we must increase civil legal aid funding in order to fulfill the Constitution’s promise of justice for all. An increase in funding for civil legal aid will also bring economic benefits to our Commonwealth, which receives tens of millions of dollars every year in federal benefits and cost savings won by legal aid attorneys on behalf of their clients.”

The speaking program also featured Massachusetts Bar Association President Douglas K. Sheff, and Boston Bar Association President Paul T. Dacier, who both called on the legislature to increase state funding for civil legal aid.

“Funding for civil legal aid is a bit over three hundredths of one percent of the overall state budget,” said Douglas K. Sheff, president of the Massachusetts Bar Association. “The governor’s proposal of $1 million in increased funding for MLAC is a step in the right direction, but it’s still inadequate to meet the needs in our Commonwealth. Without the full $17 million for MLAC, thousands of our citizens could face life-changing hardships involving their housing, their jobs and their health, among others, without the vital lifeline that legal aid provides. The Massachusetts Bar Association is in a unique position to help encourage our legislature to do the right thing, and the right thing is to empower the poor with the resources necessary to seek justice in our great Commonwealth.”

“Access to justice for all is a key tenet of democracy, and our legal system operates most effectively when parties are represented by lawyers,” said Boston Bar Association President Paul T. Dacier. “Public funding of legal aid is essential for allowing some of the most vulnerable people in our community to exercise their legal rights.”

The Walk was co-sponsored by the Equal Justice Coalition, Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association and many local and specialty bar associations. Attorneys from more than 50 Boston-area law firms and organizations participated.

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, works to increase state funding for civil legal aid. For more information, visit www.equaljusticecoalition.org.

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