BOSTON, January 27– On Thursday, Governor Maura Healey, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd, bar association leaders, and legal aid clients joined a virtual gathering of more than 1,000 people – including 755 members of the private bar and several dozen law students – for Talk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. The event kicked off the Equal Justice Coalition‘s campaign to support $49 million in the FY24 state budget for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which funds civil legal aid organizations across the state. Civil legal aid organizations provide legal advice and representation at no cost to Massachusetts residents with low incomes. People and families with incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty level ($37,500 per year for a family of four) qualify for civil legal aid.
The Walk to the Hill lobby day event, which engages members of the private bar and is now in its 24th year, has been held in a virtual format since the COVID-19 pandemic.
After hearing from the program’s speakers, attendees joined breakout rooms with their legislators. These meetings offered a unique opportunity for private attorneys and law students to speak directly to legislators and share why they believe civil legal aid is critically important.
Maura Healey speaks at Talk to the Hill 2023
In her opening remarks, Governor Healey, a longtime supporter of civil legal aid, said she looks forward to “continuing this partnership to make sure that every Massachusetts resident has access to the legal representation they deserve, and to make our state more just and equal for all.”
Healey also noted that legal aid services have become even more critical throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “That’s why we need legal aid to be strong,” she said. “Not only to handle the uptick of cases we’ve seen, but also to help us address systemic problems, level the playing field, and secure access to justice for everyone who needs it.”
Chief Justice Budd speaks during the program.
Chief Justice Budd spoke about the importance of legal aid in maintaining confidence in the legal system. She referenced a recent nationwide poll conducted by the National Center for State Courts that asked respondents if they believe the court system is fair.
“The responses from people of color were particularly concerning,” Chief Justice Budd said. “Approximately 60% of Black and Hispanic respondents said that the phrase ‘provide[s] equal justice to all’ does not describe state courts.
There are undoubtedly many complex factors that contribute to this perception of unfairness. But one concrete step that we can take … is to increase the availability of counsel for people who cannot afford a lawyer.”
Simi shares her legal aid story.
Client speakers included Simi, a young woman who connected with the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts for help with an immigration issue. Simi was 16 when her hometown in Nigeria was attacked by terrorists while she was studying at a summer program in New England, for which she’d earned a scholarship. “I got scared,” Simi said, “and I decided to not go back. It was one of the most difficult decisions I had to make.”
“Having access to organizations like the Children’s Law Center, and lawyers like Jay [McManus] … it’s like a ticket to hope,” Simi said. “I’ve moved from just having hope to actualizing dreams that I never thought I’d accomplish in life.” With help from her attorney, Simi secured a green card in late 2019. She graduated from Wesleyan University last May.
Jim, a legal aid client, shares his story.
A second client speaker, Jim, told his story of getting helped by his local legal aid with an unemployment issue. Jim worked in the bathroom remodeling business when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Afraid to risk his own health and the health of others (and heeding the advice of public health officials), Jim stopped going into other people’s homes for a period of time. He filed for Unemployment Insurance, and his application was approved. A year after he had received his benefits, however, Jim got a letter stating he was determined to be ineligible and needed to repay more than $35,000.
“I was shocked, to say the least,” says Jim. He contacted MetroWest Legal Services and an attorney took his case right away. The attorney represented Jim at a hearing and presented evidence supporting his appropriate refusal of jobs during a global pandemic. The judge ruled him eligible to receive Unemployment Insurance, and he did not have to repay any amount of the money he had rightfully received.
“When I contacted legal aid and found out they were willing to work with me on this case, I was relieved tremendously,” Jim told the Talk to the Hill crowd. “It meant a significant difference to my emotional and financial health.”
More funding in FY24 is critical
Louis Tompros, Partner at WilmerHale in Boston, serves as Chair of the Equal Justice Coalition which coordinates the event each year. Tompros says the impact of increased state appropriated funding is evidenced by improvements in the number of eligible residents served. A few years ago, 57% of people who met financial requirements and applied for help were denied representation; today that number is 47%.
While it is encouraging that organizations are accepting more cases, Tompros emphasizes that “nearly half of the people who are eligible still do not receive representation simply because staff resources are insufficient.”
Lynne Parker, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, says that since the pandemic began, “We’ve seen dramatic increases in housing cases and unemployment cases, for example. Responding to these and other urgent needs requires a robust workforce of legal aid staff. More funding will help recruit and retain skilled advocates needed to make justice for all a reality in Massachusetts.”
The recorded program is available for viewing at ejctalktothehill.org.
List of Speakers:
- Governor Maura Healey
- Chief Justice Kimberly Budd, Supreme Judicial Court
- Grace V.B. Garcia, President of the Massachusetts Bar Association
- Chinh H. Pham, President of the Boston Bar Association
- Lynne Parker, Executive Director, Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation
- Jacquelynne J. Bowman, Executive Director, Greater Boston Legal Services
- Legal aid clients who received help over the past year
- Host: Louis Tompros, Chair, Equal Justice Coalition
Additional Coverage of Talk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid: