For attorney Lynne Parker, the 20th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid on Jan. 24 at the Massachusetts State House will be her first as the new executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). But Parker is no stranger to the world of legal aid, having worked more than three decades advocating on behalf of low-income residents, most recently in New Hampshire. In this episode, Parker talks with host Jordan Rich about MLAC’s role as one of the primary funders of civil legal aid organizations in Massachusetts and why funding for legal aid — the drive behind the Walk to the Hill event — is so vital to low-income Massachusetts residents facing life-changing legal challenges. Listen to the podcast here…
By Justine A. Dunlap
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. Read more…
By Gray Christie
Attorneys, law students, and bar association leaders packed the Massachusetts State House Hall of Flags January 24 for the 20th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. Led by Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, more than 650 people assembled at the Equal Justice Coalition’s annual lobby day to advocate for a state budget increase of $5 million for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts.
“Civil legal aid is not only a moral obligation; it is a sound investment,” said Chief Justice Gants, noting the money invested in legal aid yields savings for the Commonwealth by preventing homelessness, saving medical costs, and recouping federal benefits.
Fred Connelly, a teacher and construction worker from Quincy, told the story of how lawyers with Greater Boston Legal Services helped his family avoid homelessness when they were facing eviction from the home they have lived in for nearly 40 years. Injured and out of work, he couldn’t afford a lawyer to help him keep the house he built himself. Without the help of GBLS, “I know for a fact I would not have my house back today,” he said.
In his budget filed the day before the walk, Gov. Charlie Baker included level funding for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts – an appropriation of $21 million dollars. While appreciative of the governor’s continued support, Walk to the Hill speakers stressed that more funds are needed to ensure that the civil justice system is accessible to all. Last year, two thirds of eligible applicants for legal aid were turned away.
Lawyers from nearly 40 law firms and in house-legal departments and more than 30 bar associations gathered for the event, in addition to lawyers and staff from legal aid organizations, and students and faculty from New England Law, Boston University School of Law, Northeastern University School of Law, and two busloads of students from the University of Massachusetts School of Law. Chief Justice Gants urged them: “Ask your legislators if they believe that we as a Commonwealth can succeed when so many are struggling and being left behind … Discuss the families who will need legal help in the coming fiscal year because their lives have been upended by opiate addiction, by the threat of deportation, by eviction, by elder abuse, by wage theft, or by domestic violence.”
Louis Tompros, chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, invoked the Massachusetts justice system’s rich history: “It was here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that we developed the rule of law, it was here that we recognized its incredible power, and it was here that we recognized that equal access to the legal system—regardless of ability to pay—is a necessary condition to a free and just society … If we are serious about ‘liberty and justice for all,’ it is up to us to make it a reality.”
Lynne Parker, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, noted that while the economy is improving for some, there is still a serious need for legal assistance: “Increases in housing costs often drive struggling tenants farther from their jobs. A job layoff, a medical emergency, the denial of hard-earned benefits, or the loss of health insurance can often be catastrophic to individuals and families who are already struggling to make ends meet. Access to civil legal aid can make all the difference.”
Jonathan Albano, president of the Boston Bar Association (BBA), stressed both the proven economic benefits of investing in legal aid and the current inability to meet the state’s full need. He cited a BBA report which showed that civil legal aid “produces a positive return on investment—in housing cases, in taking on intimate-partner violence, and in securing rightful federal benefits, to name just a few vital areas.” He also stressed that “roughly 45,000 eligible Massachusetts residents are turned away each year. Plus, given recent developments at the federal level, including changes to immigration policies and cuts to antipoverty programs, the need for state legal aid will likely continue to grow.”
President of the Massachusetts Bar Association Christopher Kenney argued that the shortfall in legal aid funding amounts to a crisis: “More than 66 percent of eligible people in Massachusetts are forced to face life-changing legal matters alone, making it less likely they’ll succeed and more likely that they’ll require other state resources and add to the state’s fiscal burden.”
Created in 1999 in a collaboration between the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the Boston Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Equal Justice Coalition leads an annual campaign to increase appropriations for legal aid in Massachusetts.
Just one day after Governor Baker filed his budget proposal, many attorneys are calling for more legal assistance funding for low-income residents. Read more…
Leaders from Massachusetts law firms and law schools gathered at the offices of Ropes & Gray this morning for the Equal Justice Coalition’s “Captains’ Breakfast”– an annual event in the EJC’s legislative budget campaign that sparks the legal community’s advocacy for civil legal aid. Participants celebrated past successes, heard from legal aid advocates, and discussed strategies for talking with elected officials about the importance of increasing state funding for civil legal aid in Massachusetts. These ‘Captains’ will now return to their firms and organize their colleagues to attend the EJC’s Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid at the State House on January 24 — one of the largest lobby days of the year, and a show of solidarity for the principle of access to justice for all.
Headlining this morning’s breakfast program was Margaret Marshall, former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and a longstanding champion of civil legal aid in Massachusetts. Drawing on her own experience fighting apartheid in South Africa decades ago, Chief Justice Marshall spoke passionately about the importance of making small, persistent steps toward justice. “We Americans like fast results, but the work you are engaged in is not fast,” she said.
Ms. Marshall emphasized that there are times in everyone’s lives when they will need a lawyer, recalling when she hired an elder law attorney to help her navigate legal issues for her elderly mother. “I need a lawyer. You need a lawyer. Everyone needs a lawyer,” she said.
Jacquelynne Bowman, Greater Boston Legal Services’ executive director, explained the challenges that low-income people face — both economically and as they attempt to navigate the complex civil justice system. Bowman made it clear that Massachusetts legal aid organizations desperately need a funding increase to help more people who are in desperate circumstances. GBLS, like many legal aid organizations, has not had adequate resources to replace all the lawyers who were laid off in the last recession. “We need to increase the number of advocates for legal aid,” she said.
The EJC also presented awards to law firms that had exceptional participation in last year’s Walk to the Hill. The winners were:
– Ropes & Gray, which won the Highest Participation Award
– University of Massachusetts School of Law, which won the Law School Participation Award
– Morgan Lewis, which won the Exceptional Support Award
– Fitch Law Partners, which won the Nancy King Award (for the highest percentage of their firm’s attorneys attending the Walk)
– Hogan Lovells, CMBG3 Law, and Robinson + Cole, who each earned the Team Advocacy Award by having every one of their attorneys in attendance meet with a legislator.
The EJC is grateful for its partnership with all of the law firms and law schools that participate in the Walk to the Hill, and we look forward to seeing everyone for this year’s Walk on January 24!
For photos from this morning’s event, and other updates from the EJC, check out our Facebook page.
This column appeared in the Cambridge Chronicle.
Since my term as a Cambridge city councilor began in January 2018, housing has been the number one concern for members of our community. Calls come in to my office nearly every day: A panicked family has received an eviction notice and is searching for support. A tenant wants to understand their rights after a situation arises with their landlord. The rent has been adjusted, and a family cannot afford the increase.
I’ve helped constituents comprehend application forms and connected them to the many resources we have in Cambridge, such as RAFT (Residential Assistance for Families in Transition), which provides short-term financial assistance to low-income families and individuals who are at risk of homelessness or currently homeless. While working directly with those facing all manner of housing emergencies, and attempting, alongside my constituents, to navigate a complex system of forms, laws, deadlines and regulations, it became increasingly clear how severe our urban housing crisis is here in Cambridge.
Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services (CASLS), a division of Greater Boston Legal Services, provides free legal services to low-income families and individuals (those who earn up to 125 percent of the poverty level — $31,375 for a family of four in 2018 — or up to 200 percent in limited circumstances). As a legal aid attorney myself, I understand how critical these services are to helping people stay in their homes, and why they’re a necessary component of our city’s housing plan.
The city of Cambridge’s contract with CASLS allows services for households up to 60 percent of the HUD area median income ($64,680 for a family of four), and these standards enable CASLS to serve a broader group of individuals and families than is typically served in other communities. CASLS is also collectively responsible for serving six cities and towns, including Cambridge. As rents continue to escalate throughout our city, and tenant protections remain sparse, tenants in need of Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services’ support far outnumber those it can assist.
Receiving these emails and phone calls from constituents, I turned to CASLS for guidance and referred tenants to its services. Yet the organization’s caseload was overwhelming; CASLS only had three attorneys, none of whom were exclusively dedicated to housing law, and a single AmeriCorps service paralegal. As I continued to encounter more and more of my neighbors swept up in a current of housing instability, I knew we needed relief now — we needed another lifeboat. This past June, I submitted a policy order that was co-sponsored by Mayor Marc McGovern, Councilor Dennis Carlone and Councilor E. Denise Simmons requesting more legal aid funding for CASLS so that the organization could afford to hire an additional housing attorney. The city’s decision to agree to this increase in legal aid funding was a critical first step in protecting Cambridge tenants.
On Oct. 15, the city appropriated $65,000 to increase the funding for legal services for Cambridge residents at risk of losing their housing. This increase in funding reflects a 50-percent increase to the current funding of $130,000 through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. In addition to hiring another attorney, and therein increasing legal representation for individuals and families, the funds will allow CASLS to increase the number of open office hours provided at the Multi-Service Center by 50 percent, as well as improve access to trainings and ongoing consultations for other local providers and Multi-Service Center staff, who are similarly supporting clients facing housing insecurity.
This funding is significant because it not only ensures that the CASLS Office in Cambridge stays open, but it also allows CASLS to address a greater proportion of the immediate needs in Cambridge — those constituents facing eviction or other housing emergencies. The Harvard Law Review conducted a study which found that two-thirds of tenants who had a legal aid attorney were able to stay in their homes, compared with only one-third of tenants who had represented themselves in housing court. Considering the positive impact access to legal representation has on our city’s tenants, I will advocate for further increases in funding to legal aid services in the future.
It remains imperative, however, that we as a city acknowledge both historic catalysts and what is to come. In addition to responding to emergencies, we must identify and address the many factors that have generated our present housing crisis and establish informed, proactive solutions. We must collaborate on the construction of long-term solutions, using the tools at our disposal to fight displacement before it occurs. I will be writing about tenant displacement and proactive housing policy through future columns in weeks to come.
City Councilor Sumbul Siddiqui, Cambridge
Sumbul Siddiqui is a first-term councilor who grew up in Cambridge. She also has a podcast, along with councilor Alanna Mallon, called “Women Are Here.”