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!
Hundreds of Attorneys to Gather at State House on Thursday, January 26 to Request $5 Million Increase in Funding for Civil Legal Aid
BOSTON (January 11, 2017)―Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court and bar association leaders will join hundreds of private attorneys from more than 40 law firms at the Massachusetts State House on Thursday, Jan. 26 at 11:30am for the 18th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. Attendees of this annual lobby day, one of the largest held at the State House each year, will request a $5 million increase in state funding for programs that provide civil legal aid to low-income Massachusetts residents.
“Civil legal aid is a key part of efforts by the state and the social service sector to fight poverty in Massachusetts. Free legal advice or representation in non-criminal legal matters like child support and custody disputes; home foreclosure or eviction; wrongful termination from a job, and accessing veterans’ services provides the stability that can assist low-income people to build a better future for themselves,” said Lonnie Powers, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). “State investment in civil legal aid is critical to the success of these efforts.”
Speakers at Walk to the Hill will include Chief Justice Gants, Boston Bar Association President Carol A. Starkey, and Massachusetts Bar Association President Jeffrey N. Catalano. The program will also include remarks by a client who has benefited from civil legal aid assistance.
“Civil legal aid is one of the smartest investments the Commonwealth makes each year,” said MLAC Board Chair Marijane Benner Browne. “Each year, community-based civil legal aid programs around the state generate more money in new revenue and cost savings than the Commonwealth appropriates to support these programs. A 2014 report by the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts found that every dollar Massachusetts spent on civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure cases saved $2.69 in state services, and every dollar spent on assisting qualified people to receive federal benefits returns $5 to the state and its residents. We simply can’t afford not to make this investment.”
Following the speaking program, attorneys will visit their legislators and urge them to increase funding for MLAC, the largest funder of civil legal aid in Massachusetts, by $5 million in the FY18 state budget, for a total appropriation of $23 million.
Walk to the Hill is sponsored by the Equal Justice Coalition, a collaboration of the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. The event is also co-sponsored by numerous county and specialty bar associations throughout Massachusetts.
11:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Great Hall of Flags
Massachusetts State House, Boston
The order of speakers is as follows:
- Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court
- Massachusetts Bar Association President Jeffrey N. Catalano
- Boston Bar Association President Carol A. Starkey
- Legal aid client
NOTE: Members of the media are welcome to attend all or part of the speaking program. Please follow the Equal Justice Coalition on Twitter (www.twitter.com/equaljusticema) as well as the hashtags #IWalkForJustice and #WalktotheHill for the latest on Walk to the Hill 2017.
# # #
About the Equal Justice Coalition
The Equal Justice Coalition, a collaboration of the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, works to increase state funding for civil legal aid.