Top funding needed for legal assistance corporation (South Coast Today)

Below is an excerpt from a June 15 op-ed, written by Justine Dunlap and published by South Coast Today, in support of increased civil legal aid funding.

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Lawyers — we love to hate them until we need one. The good news is that, in certain critical situations, lawyers are available. They are a constitutional entitlement for the criminally accused. They can be retained on a contingency fee basis in certain kinds of cases. Legal services may be available through a work-based pre-paid plan. And, if you have lots of money, legal services are, of course, readily procurable. That’s the stuff of legal “dream teams.”

The bad news: In other critical circumstances, a lawyer’s service is out of reach, particularly for persons of low income. In certain areas of the law, like landlord/tenant and family law cases, many cases proceed with one or both sides not having a lawyer. In legal parlance, these self-represented parties are called pro se litigants. In some cases — like small claims court — pro se litigants are appropriate. In those cases, because the financial stakes are low, the system is set up so that lawyers are not necessary. But that is not true generally. Most lawsuits involve high stakes — financial or otherwise — and do not proceed well without lawyers who know the substantive law and procedural rules. Thus, although one might have rights provided under the law, those rights are difficult to assert or achieve without a lawyer.

Our society is sometimes criticized for being too litigious. But those who need lawyers are often brought into court by others. A tenant, for instance, whose landlord may be seeking to evict him, or a consumer being sued by an unscrupulous lender. Other times people need to affirmatively seek the court’s aid. A victim of intimate abuse may need legal protection to begin to remove herself or himself from an abuser’s control. The rights that each of these persons have are less likely to be realized if there is not a lawyer available to assist.

Read more at South Coast Today.

 

Funding cuts force layoffs, closings at Legal Services (South Coast Today)

Below is an excerpt from a March 12 article, published by South Coast Today, about the effect of funding challenges at South Coastal Counties Legal Services. Richard McMahon, Executive Director of SCCLS, is quoted.

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NEW BEDFORD — The same recession that caused many low-income and elderly persons to seek free legal help with their worsening problems is undermining the very agency that is supposed to be there to help them.

South Coastal Counties Legal Services Inc., or SCCLS, which once had offices throughout Southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod, has been forced to lay off 10 attorneys, secretaries and paralegals and close three offices, including the one in New Bedford, Executive Director Richard McMahon told The Standard-Times.

The remaining employees are trying to handle the work load and yet are being cut 9 percent in their pay.

The agency’s office on Union Street has been shuttered even though the agency owns the property, McMahon said.

“At least the initial contact is by phone,” McMahon said. The head office in Fall River will take the New Bedford calls, and send attorneys to the clients as needed.

The Plymouth office was closed late last year, McMahon said, and the Taunton office will close in a matter of weeks.

That will leave offices in Fall River, Hyannis and Brockton.

McMahon did not provide financial details, except to say that the losses came in grants and federal aid while state funding remained level.

“This is a real blow, of course, at a time when the economy is impacting the low-income community. There’s an increase and greater demand for our services and yet we’re laying off.”

McMahon said that there is a misconception that legal advice is free to the poor by right, but that only applies to cases that threaten their liberty, mostly criminal cases. In civil matters they must depend on nonprofits such as the SCCLS or on attorneys who do pro bono, “for free,” work as a way of giving back to the community.

Read more at South Coast Today.

Boston Globe – Begging For Representation

Civil legal aid is a sound investment for all of us (Boston Globe)

Below is excerpt from a January 26 editorial, published by The Boston Globe, supporting increased state funding for civil legal services in Massachusetts. Lonnie Powers, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, is quoted.

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Sometimes, the world puts you in a situation so unfair, so absurd, that only a lawyer can get you out of it. But what if you can’t afford a lawyer?

What if you’re Remon Jourdan? Jourdan, 37, was paralyzed from the chest down after a car accident 10 years ago. He needs help with almost everything: dressing, bathing, eating, scratching itches.

“Life happens, right?’’ Jourdan says.

So does Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Each week, four personal care assistants visit the Randolph home he shares with his mother to help him through his days. MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, had always funded them. But last summer Jourdan learned that the payments stopped, because his doctor had failed to sign a certain form. He appealed, and the state resumed the payments, but it refused to fund the month the application was in limbo. His assistants, like family to him, were out $4,000.

He appealed twice and was denied. So there he was, stuck, through no fault of his own, promising to pay his caregivers in dribs and drabs from his $500 monthly disability payment, even if it took him 10 years. Then, Jourdan got lucky – not lucky in the sense that the state’s paper-pushers saw the error of their ways, of course. No, he had the great good fortune to have his case taken by one of the state’s civil legal aid attorneys. It took 15 hours of work, but Nancy Lorenz, a senior lawyer at Greater Boston Legal Services, got Jourdan’s caregivers covered.

“She was a lifesaver,’’ Jourdan says of Lorenz. “I had no other avenues open to me.’’

Tens of thousands of people each year – people on low incomes seeking benefits they were unfairly denied or fighting unjust foreclosures and evictions or needing protection from battering spouses – have no other avenue.

Lawyers Call on Beacon Hill to Increase Legal Aid (WBUR)

Below is an excerpt from a January 26 article, published by WBUR, about the EJC’s annual lobby day, Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid.

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Calls to increase funding for legal aid services are being made on Beacon Hill. With more and more low-income residents being turned away from free legal services due to a lack of funding, the legal community worries justice may not be served.

There’s a paradox in Massachusetts’ legal system: as the economy has sputtered over the last four years, the amount of money available for civil legal aid has dropped sharply. At the same time, because of the economy, the demand for legal aid has spiked, with low-income citizens facing increased legal problems including eviction and foreclosure, to name a couple.

“This is a need. This is something that people who are underrepresented need,” said Remon Jourdan. He understands that need first-hand. The Randolph resident is a quadriplegic and was in danger last year of losing his personal care attendants after his doctor failed to complete the necessary paperwork so they could be paid. Jourdan turned to a lawyer from Greater Boston Legal Services.

“I’m not in a situation where I could just hire a lawyer. So, I thought I had no other options available to me, so, when I was given this opportunity, to have some type of help, I just jumped on it,” Jourdan said.

Nancy Lorenz is Jourdan’s attorney from Greater Boston Legal Services.

“We get people calling who have been trying on their own to resolve it for months, sometimes,” Lorenz said. “Like their MassHealth got shut off, they don’t know why. They call, they can’t get through on their phone, they’re not able to go to the doctor, they’re not able to fill their prescription, and then, they get to us, and we fix it.”

Read more at WBUR.