Law Leaders, Social Services Agencies Call for Legal Aid Funding

February 23, 2016—Demonstrating a broad base of support for increasing civil legal aid funding, managing partners of prominent law firms; corporate and university attorneys; deans of all Massachusetts law schools; and social services providers are calling for an increase of $10 million in the state’s investment in civil legal aid funding.

Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker released a proposed FY2017 budget that allocated $17,170,000 for civil legal aid, an increase of $170,000 over FY2016. The request for a $10 million increase in civil legal aid funding is based on a recommendation by the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, which in 2014 issued Investing in Justice, a report that demonstrated civil legal aid is unavailable to more than 60 percent of qualified residents who seek it. The report called for an additional state investment of $30 million in civil legal aid in Massachusetts, to be phased in over a three-year period.

Managing partners from 44 law firms sent a letter to Gov. Baker on Jan. 15 urging him to consider the stakes of not providing legal assistance to low-income residents with critical civil legal issues. Signers included Robert I. Bodian of Mintz Levin; Adam P. Kahn and William R. Kolb of Foley Hoag; Deborah J. Manus of Nutter McClennen and Fish; and R. Newcomb Stillwell, of Ropes & Gray.

“[T]ens of thousands of low-income litigants who cannot afford legal representation must fend for themselves when facing life-changing legal problems—while many others are forced to abandon their legitimate claims altogether. These individuals are often the most vulnerable members of our society: the elderly, the disabled, and people facing linguistic barriers, to name a few. For these low-income litigants, civil legal aid is their last resort for achieving justice through our legal system,” the letter said. “Beyond ensuring more just outcomes for clients and a more equitable application of the law, civil legal aid helps our courts function more efficiently. The high volume of pro se litigants that fill Massachusetts court houses slows down courtroom procedures and creates time-consuming work for already overburdened staff. …Increased funding for civil legal aid will not only help low-income people resolve legal issues, but also improve the efficiency and legitimacy of the court system for people of all income levels.”

In a separate letter, 69 attorneys who serve as general counsel at institutions ranging from Liberty Mutual Group, EMC Corporation, Arbella Insurance Group, Fenway Sports Group/Boston Red Sox, Boston Medical Center, Tufts Health Plan, Boston University, and Eastern Bank, emphasized that civil legal aid is the right investment to make when budgets tighten.

“As you well know, tough fiscal times call for careful decision making,” the attorneys wrote. “A state’s most pragmatic expenditures should help its residents access the basic necessities of life, avert the need for future spending on emergency services, or yield economic benefits for the state’s economy and residents. Civil legal aid accomplishes all three of these ends.”

A letter from the deans of the state’s nine law schools including Martha L. Minow of Harvard Law School, Vincent D. Rougeau of Boston College Law School, Jeremy R. Paul of Northeastern University School of Law; and Mary Lu Bilek of the University of Massachusetts School of Law noted that law school students understood the importance of civil legal aid and many support legal aid programs in the state. “However, their dedication and commitment to equal justice can only go so far,” the deans’ letter read. “Students and pro bono lawyers cannot meet the needs of the nearly one million Massachusetts residents living at or below 125% of the poverty line who quality for civil legal aid―which for a family of four means making $30,313 a year or less.”

Seventy social services agencies across the state representing children, people with disabilities, survivors of domestic violence, people who are homeless, older adults, and immigrants and refugees have also endorsed a statement of support for increasing the budget. Signers include Rosie’s Place; Jane Doe, Inc.; Boston Center for Independent Living; the Children’s League of Massachusetts; Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley; Northampton Survival Center; South Shore Community Action Council; Springfield Partners for Community Action; and Worcester Community Action Council.

“As an organization dedicated to serving low-income residents and building stronger, healthier communities, we recognize the pivotal role of civil legal aid in helping residents across the Commonwealth maintain safe, stable and healthy lives,” the statement reads. “The free legal advice and representation provided by civil legal aid programs to low-income individuals and families who every day face legal issues arising from poverty—including homelessness, domestic violence, lack of access to public benefits and health inequity—are essential to achieving equal justice for all in Massachusetts.”

Read the full text of the letters here.

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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