2012 Walk to the Hill
Lt. Gov. Murray, Justice Gants Lead Charge to Increase Funding for Civil Legal Aid
Walk to the Hill 2012 Brings Nearly 700 Private Attorneys to the State House
BOSTON (January 26, 2012) – Lt. Governor Tim Murray made a surprise appearance in the Great Hall this morning to kick off the 13th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. He expressed his support for increasing funding for the civil legal aid line item, the day after Governor Patrick recommended $12 million for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC, 0321-1600) in the FY13 budget. MLAC’s appropriation has held steady at $9.5 million since FY09.
Justice Ralph Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court, who serves as co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, was the featured speaker again this year. He urged participants to ask their legislators, “What kind of a Commonwealth would we be if we did not protect the rights of those in need by providing them with adequate legal services? And if we do not protect the rights of those in need, who will? And if not now, when?”
The goal of this year’s Walk to the Hill – which has consistently been one of the best attended lobby days in the state – is to increase state funding for legal aid programs that provide advice and representation to low-income Massachusetts residents facing critical civil legal problems such as eviction and foreclosure, child custody and support issues, denial of health care coverage, unemployment benefits appeals, domestic violence and elder abuse. Programs have been struggling to meet demand due to a 78 percent decrease in revenue since FY08 from the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program, the other major funding source for civil legal aid. MLAC has cut grants to the 16 legal aid programs it funds by 56 percent since FY08. A supplemental FY12 appropriation of $1 million is pending in the legislature.
“We’re incredibly grateful that the Governor has heard our critical message,” said Lonnie Powers, MLAC’s executive director. “Thanks to him, our campaign is off to such a strong start; however, we need the continued support of the private bar to keep the momentum going through the legislature.” Powers said MLAC’s official request for FY13 is $14.5 million.
The Walk was co-sponsored by the Equal Justice Coalition, Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association, and 31 local and specialty bar associations. Participants included attorneys from more than 50 Boston-area law firms and organizations.
The speaking program also featured Massachusetts Bar Association President Richard Campbell and Boston Bar Association President Lisa Goodheart, who both called on the legislature to increase state funding for civil legal aid.
“Legal aid organizations throughout the state are being pushed to their breaking point as they are faced with drastic cuts in IOLTA funding and an ever-increasing need for services. It is a frustrating reality that the resources available fall far short,” said Campbell. “We must stay vigilant throughout the budget process, imploring the legislature and Governor that more funds are desperately needed.”
According to Goodheart, “Equal access to justice requires our society to provide advocates for poor people facing legal problems that affect their important rights and fundamental needs. We commend the many lawyers providing pro bono assistance to the needy. At the same time, the reality is that volunteers cannot substitute for legal services attorneys with specialized skills and experience. Given that reality, adequate state funding for civil legal aid is truly essential.”
The final speaker was Remon Jourdan of Randolph, a former client of Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS). Jourdan is a quadriplegic who requires around-the-clock care. Due to a doctor’s simple error in June 2011, Mass Health stopped paying Remon for his personal care attendants. After identifying the error, his attorney brought a case against MassHealth in court. They reached a settlement in which the agency agreed to pay the full $4,000 it owed Jourdan, so can was able to continue to receive the high level of care he needs, free from worry.
“This isn’t a big case, I know,” said Jourdan. “It was only $4000 and a few missed paychecks. But this is the beauty of legal aid. They’re there for people like me – and for me, this case was huge.”
As private attorneys, Walk to the Hill participants have no direct stake in civil legal aid funding. However, according to Sandy Moskowitz, chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, they understand the critical importance of legal representation and the disadvantages faced by pro se litigants who appear in court unrepresented.
Moskowitz also stressed the need for increased funding for the civil legal aid line item. “We are grateful that the Governor and the legislature recognized the current critical need with an additional $1 million dollars for this fiscal year. However, to avoid further devastating program cuts, it is equally important that the Commonwealth increase the appropriation in the upcoming fiscal year. That’s the reason we’re all here today.”