Advocating for More Resources for Civil Legal Aid

As it does every year during budget season, the Equal Justice Coalition—a collaboration of the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation—drew nearly 700 attorneys from the legal community January 26 to the State House to lobby legislators for increased civil legal aid funding. Since the November election, civil legal aid programs around the state are dealing with an influx of people seeking assistance from an already dramatically under-funded system. In response, legal aid advocates are seeking a $5 million increase in state funding, which would bring the state’s annual investment in civil legal aid up to $23 million.

“Legal aid organizations are being deluged with requests for help from immigrants who seek to become naturalized citizens, who fear the loss of their work permits, their housing, and their access to education,” Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants noted in remarks to the attorneys gathered in the Hall of Flags. “The poor and the elderly who survive on food stamps, Social Security, or transitional aid for dependent children will reach out to legal services when their benefits are terminated or reduced. The working poor and elderly whose health care may be put at risk by the repeal or erosion of the Affordable Care Act will look to legal services to protect their access to health benefits. Elder abuse, the loss of unemployment benefits, consumer fraud, eviction, domestic violence—so many problems, and for each the poor look to legal services for help.”

Gov. Baker has recommended a one percent increase of $180,000 to the current $18 million appropriation for legal aid. While any increase in funding is welcome, the sum is far below what is needed to meet the demand for services in an average year. As it stands now, legal aid organizations statewide are collectively turning away 64 percent of eligible people who come to them seeking assistance because there simply are not enough resources to help them.

This year, legal aid organizations  are also bracing for potential cuts in federal funding, lending an even greater sense of urgency to the lobby day.

Boston Bar Association President Carol Starkey told the gathering that she is concerned about proposed federal cuts not just to legal aid, but to allocations for programs that curb violence against women and community policing programs as well.

“It’s hard not to read into those suggested spending cuts as a message that the poor and the disenfranchised do not have an ally in our highest levels of federal government,” she said.

Funding shortfalls have real world consequences for families and individuals like Bill, a Boston retiree who abruptly lost his MassHealth coverage due to a system error just as he was about to start a life-saving treatment regimen for Hepatitis C. Despite repeated attempts, Bill was not able to solve the issue on his own. Meanwhile, as time passed, he grew increasingly panicked about his health and the risks of delayed treatment. So Bill contacted Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) for assistance. He was connected with an attorney in the GBLS Elder, Health, and Disability unit who resolved the issue within a week. Soon afterward, Bill resumed treatment for hepatitis C and, as he told the crowd at Walk to the Hill, he now enjoys a clean bill of health from his doctor.

“When they told me I was healthy, that the treatment had worked—the first person I thought of was [my attorney],” he said. “I know I wouldn’t be here and be healthy without her help.

“Thank God for legal aid,” he added. “I’m so grateful for what they did for me.”

Be sure to watch this space or follow us on Twitter (@equaljusticema) for the latest information and action alerts related to state funding for civil legal aid. Your voice matters!