Below is an excerpt from a May 29 op-ed published in The Boston Globe. The piece was written by Susan Alexander – executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at Biogen IDEC – in support of increased civil legal aid funding in Massachusetts.
Shanice, a young mother of two, considers herself lucky to live in Cambridge public housing. She can’t afford to pay market rent for an apartment on her wages as a hotel worker, and she knows from personal experience that time spent on the waiting list for an apartment like hers can stretch on for years. So Shanice was shocked and frightened when she received a notice from the Cambridge Housing Authority saying that they were evicting her because she owed $197 in unpaid rent. Within 48 hours, a moving truck would be at her door.
Shanice had paid her rent and was sure the notice was a mistake, but she couldn’t afford a lawyer to contest the eviction. She was afraid that she would have to move to a homeless shelter with her 9- and 4-year-old sons. But Shanice was lucky. She found free legal help at Greater Boston Legal Services, where an attorney discovered that the Housing Authority had added maintenance fees to her rent and was trying to illegally evict her for non-payment of these fees. The charges were for minor issues, like failing to attach trash can lids. The attorney contested the eviction in housing court, and Shanice was able to keep her home.
People like Shanice face similar challenges every day in courtrooms throughout Massachusetts, but unlike her, they are often forced to navigate complex legal proceedings by themselves because they can’t afford an attorney. These are families facing eviction and foreclosure, working people who are denied unemployment, the elderly needing coverage for medication and mothers seeking child support.
Civil legal aid programs like GBLS, funded in part by the Commonwealth, have historically provided attorneys for residents unable to afford them. However, reduced funding has left these programs unable to keep up with a growing need for assistance. Today, civil legal aid programs turn away more than half of the people who request their help. Without an attorney, these litigants are at a disadvantage when facing mortgage companies, abusive spouses or partners, landlords and employers with greater means. A recent study by a Harvard Law School professor found that tenants who face eviction with a lawyer had significantly better outcomes than those who represented themselves.