Below is an excerpt from a January 29 op-ed published in South Coast Today. The piece was written by Justine Dunlap, a professor of law at UMass Law, in support of increased civil legal aid funding.
Several hundred lawyers and law students participated in the 20th Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid on Jan. 24. This tradition, sponsored by the Equal Justice Coalition, provides information on the importance of adequately funding civil legal aid.
Sometimes people think that there is a federal constitutional right to counsel in non-criminal cases. However, there is no such right. The right guaranteed by the Constitution comes via the 6th Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright; it applies only to criminal cases. There is a push to create a right to counsel in some civil cases. And Massachusetts has created that right in a few types of cases. However, regardless of whether this comes to pass in more categories, there is great present need to increase the availability of civil legal aid to those who qualify.
Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) is seeking $26 million in fiscal year 2020 to provide legal services. Fully funding the MLAC request is more than an issue of justice—it is also a very cost-effective expenditure. In fiscal 2018, legal services agencies funded by MLAC provided more than $60 million in recovered benefits and cost-savings to the commonwealth. Further, according to the report from the Boston Bar Association’s 2014 statewide task force to expand legal services, every dollar put into eviction and foreclosure legal services saves the state $2.69. Every dollar spent on a lawyer helping to secure an entitlement to federal benefits recoups nearly $5. In addition to these savings, if a legal services lawyer can help a person gain or regain benefits that have been erroneously denied or terminated, dignity is also restored. Although dignity’s value may be hard to quantify, we all know its worth. And, as Chief Justice Gants of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said at the Jan. 24, gathering, the $26 million amounts to about $3.79 per person in the commonwealth or less than a Starbucks latte. Now that’s a good value.