Amid deportations, SJC’s chief justice pleads for $5m hike in funding for civil legal aid

Travis Andersen, GLOBE STAFF  JANUARY 25, 2018

The chief justice of the state’s highest court made an impassioned plea Thursday for a $5 million increase in public funding for civil legal aid for poor Massachusetts residents, including undocumented immigrants facing possible deportation and the severing of their families.

Speaking at the State House, Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court said raising the yearly budget allocation for indigent civil legal aid, to $23 million from $18 million, is vital amid the threat of deportation faced by thousands of state residents from Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras who recently lost protection under the federal Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, program.

“Why $5 million more than last year? Last year, Elsa, a 45-year-old TPS holder from El Salvador who cleans Boston offices from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., and who takes care of her two sons, both US citizens, during the rest of her waking hours, was not faced with being forced to return to El Salvador and to leave her children,” Gants said.

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Massachusetts State House

Chief Justice Gants and Bar Association Leaders to Speak at 19th Annual Walk to the Hill

BOSTON (January 16, 2018)―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. 25 at 11:00 a.m. for the 19th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. Attendees of this annual lobby day, one of the largest held on Beacon Hill each year, will request a $5 million increase in state funding for programs that provide civil legal aid to low-income Massachusetts residents. Approximately 880,000 people in Massachusetts have incomes at or below 125% of the Federal Poverty Level ($30,750 a year for a family of four), making them eligible for civil legal aid.

“Tens of thousands of people who live in Massachusetts cannot afford the legal help or representation they need when facing life-changing circumstances such as escaping domestic violence, unlawful eviction or home foreclosure, or the denial of veteran’s benefits,” said Lonnie Powers, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). “They’re left to navigate these complex legal matters alone, putting their families, homes, health, and livelihoods at risk. Civil legal aid gives low-income people in Massachusetts the tools they need to achieve or maintain their financial stability and independence.”

Speakers at Walk to the Hill will include Chief Justice Gants, Boston Bar Association President Mark D. Smith, and Massachusetts Bar Association President Christopher P. Sullivan. The program will also include remarks by a client who has been helped by civil legal aid.

“At a time when immigrant communities face uncertainty and hostility, and fear that the rule of law is threatened, the need for legal advocacy and advice from our civil legal aid organizations has never been more urgent,” said Justice Gants.

MBA President Christopher P. Sullivan said: “With no guarantee of a lawyer in a civil case, far too many Massachusetts residents go unrepresented in court because they simply cannot afford a lawyer, and the legal aid resources are far too limited to help everyone who is qualified to receive such aid. That’s unacceptable. Having access to a lawyer is critical, especially when folks are fighting for their homes or services for their kids or facing other life-altering challenges. More funding for legal aid is the answer, and the Massachusetts Bar Association urges our elected officials to increase funding for legal aid to ensure equal justice for all in the Commonwealth.”

“Every year, we work alongside our partners in the Equal Justice Coalition to secure funding for civil legal aid in the state budget because we understand the devastating consequences for Massachusetts families who cannot afford legal representation,” said Boston Bar Association President Mark Smith. “In addition to enabling low-income residents to access legal services, investing resources in civil legal aid saves money.”

“Civil legal aid is a solid return on investment for Massachusetts taxpayers and our communities,” said MLAC Board Chair Marijane Benner Browne. “In fiscal year 2016, the work of the 14 civil legal aid programs funded by MLAC provided an economic benefit of $49.2 million to the state’s economy. This included federal benefits and other financial support for low-income residents, as well as shelter and health care cost savings for the state.”

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 FY19 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
  • Boston Bar Association President Mark D. Smith
  • Massachusetts Bar Association President Christopher P. Sullivan
  • 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 ( as well as the hashtags #IWalkForJustice and #WalktotheHill for the latest on Walk to the Hill 2018.

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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. For more information, visit


FY19 Budget Campaign Factsheet Now Available

Senate Approves $20 million for Legal Aid

House Committee recommends $19.5 million for MLAC

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!