The Law, Lawyers, And The Courts: The First Line Of Defense Against Donald Trump

(This post was first published on WGBH News.)

by Lonnie Powers

There has seldom been a time when the wisdom of John Adams’s separation of powers among the three branches of government has been more obvious. The doctrine was a crucial innovation of the Massachusetts Constitution and was incorporated into the United States Constitution. The first two months of the new presidential administration have demonstrated the necessity of our system of checks and balances on arbitrary power. Thus far, only the judicial branch has acted as an effective deterrent to the administration’s extraordinary, unrestrained style of governance. The courts have courageously insisted on fidelity to the rule of law.

This was illustrated dramatically in January, when President Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants, refugees, and visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the country. No warning or guidance was given ahead of time to federal personnel charged with enforcing the ban, which went into effect immediately after it was signed. As a result, legal residents of the U.S. who had been traveling overseas were detained or turned away at airports across the country.

Attorneys flocked to airports, providing free legal aid to individuals and families swept up in the ban. This legal assistance was, in many cases, the difference between people with visas and green cards being allowed into the country or having their lives and livelihoods cast into limbo.
Within days, the ACLU, state attorneys general and individual attorneys won injunctions against the ban in federal courts in Massachusetts, New York and Washington State.

Even with this important check from the judiciary, we have seen alarming cracks in the system. At some airports, Customs and Border Protection agents refused to obey court orders issuing a stay on the ban. And President Trump used his Twitter account to attack a judge who issued a stay on the ban, referring to him as a “so-called judge” and accusing him of putting the country in “peril” with his order. The tweets resulted in threats being directed toward the judge.

Nevertheless, when the Trump administration sought to implement a more narrow travel ban in March, the judiciary responded yet again. Attorneys General of Hawaii and Maryland won court injunctions to stop it, with judges ruling that the ban continues to impose a religious test on those wishing to enter the U.S. Opposition to the religion-based, unconstitutional travel ban is the starkest example yet of the important role our independent judiciary and strong legal profession are playing in the current political environment. They have been fighting on multiple fronts—and readying themselves for more work to come.

Attorneys general in numerous states have sued to prevent the Trump administration from dismantling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which protects consumers by taking action against companies that engage in unfair, deceptive, or abusive business practices. They are also suing to preserve the federal program that reduces harmful emissions from trucks and to prevent the federal government from resurrecting a national accrediting agency that permitted for-profit schools, such as ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges, to defraud students.

The Trump administration is also proposing to eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the federal agency that makes grants to civil legal aid organizations across the country. Just as attorneys helped cut through the chaos created by the Muslim ban, legal aid lawyers untangle smaller-scale but no less devastating non-criminal legal matters like home foreclosure, the denial of veterans’ benefits, dangerous working conditions, or domestic violence by negotiating on behalf of low-income clients or helping them navigate our complex civil court system.

With Trump’s proposed budget that seeks to drastically cut funding to, or eliminate completely, an array of federal agencies and popular programs that help underserved communities and low-income families and individuals, Americans who are already struggling to make ends meet will be squeezed even further. If a fraction of the proposed cuts are enacted, the need for legal representation within these marginalized groups will increase sharply. For families living one paycheck away from homelessness, or a child on the edge of catastrophic illness, civil legal assistance can have outsized influence on the ability to live independently and with dignity in the face of increased hardship.

Sensing the catastrophic potential of leaving low-income Americans to navigate our complicated legal, government, and regulatory systems on their own, the American Bar Association (ABA) is mobilizing the legal community in a grassroots campaign aimed at encouraging lawmakers to preserve the LSC and with it our country’s commitment to making access to justice available to all in our nation who need it.

As the last two months have taught us, the legal system is critical to our democracy.

Lonnie Powers is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

Prepare To Dig In To Preserve Civil Legal Aid

By Lonnie Powers

We don’t quite know what to expect from the federal government in the weeks and months ahead in terms of support for civil legal aid. For decades, support for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the nonprofit that administers federal funding to legal aid programs across the country, has been seen as a smart investment by members of both parties.

In 1964, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, a centerpiece of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s anti-poverty agenda. The law aimed to eliminate poverty by giving poor people access to educational and vocational programs, loans, and other services that would help them achieve greater financial security. It quickly became clear that 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 provided stability that was just as vital to fighting poverty as educational and financial supports. Civil legal aid became a key part of the effort to fight poverty in America.

Like Johnson before him, President Richard M. Nixon understood the necessity of civil legal aid for people struggling to escape poverty. In his proposal to create the LSC, which was passed by Congress in 1974, Nixon called local civil legal aid offices the places where “the old, the unemployed, the underprivileged, and the largely forgotten people of our Nation may seek help.” He added, “Perhaps it is an eviction, a marital conflict, repossession of a car, or misunderstanding over a welfare check—each problem may have a legal solution. These are small claims in the Nation’s eye, but they loom large in the hearts and lives of poor Americans.”

Numerous programs have since demonstrated the wisdom of this approach. Civil legal services can help poor people stay in their homes, prevent sudden evictions by allowing tenants to negotiate exits from housing, and ensure smooth transitions to safe, affordable housing. A pilot program launched in 2009 by the Boston Bar Association showed that poor people fighting eviction notices in housing court in Quincy, Massachusetts fared much better when they were represented by attorneys. Two-thirds of those with full representation kept their housing; only one-third of those who went through housing court without an attorney were able to do the same. Similar results have been found in New York City, San Francisco, and San Mateo County, California.

Legal advocacy in the form of large, class-action lawsuits to change laws and governmental policies that adversely ― and overwhelmingly ― affect poor people, has also been effective in ensuring access to justice regardless of income. In 1970, legal aid attorneys successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Goldberg v. Kelly that state welfare departments cannot terminate benefits without first providing applicants with a fair hearing. In 1973, California Rural Legal Assistance successfully sued to stop large agricultural operators from requiring migrant farm workers to use short-handled hoes while working in fields. (The short-handled hoes forced workers to stay bent over for long periods of time; field managers required their use because if they saw workers standing up, then they knew that they were resting and not working. After these hoes were banned, back injuries among farm workers dropped by more than 30 percent.) More recently, a federal lawsuit by Greater Boston Legal Services resulted in changes in policy by the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance which had improperly denied benefits to people living with disabilities.

Despite these clear successes, state and federal funding for civil legal aid is well below what is needed ― studies show that more than 63 million Americans qualify for LSC-funded civil legal assistance, yet about 80 percent of the serious legal needs of low-income Americans go unmet. Civil legal aid must be deployed more broadly in future efforts to combat poverty, and public resources for legal assistance must be increased greatly in order to maintain progress. President Obama, a strong supporter of civil legal aid, secured modest funding increases during his tenure (though some were rolled back). He also expanded access to legal aid services through initiatives like the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR). The Roundtable has made available more grant funding for legal aid, conducted new research, and provided education to federal agency staff about how civil legal aid advances federal priorities, among other activities. But much more is needed, in terms of resources and political will, if we are truly serious about helping low-income Americans establish and maintain independent, financially secure lives.

Any attempts to weaken or dismantle federal civil legal aid must be met with principled advocacy and resistance by the legal community, social justice activists, and civil rights organizations. Civil legal aid is a powerful ― and much needed ― tool that helps people living in poverty build a foundation of stability so they can create a better future for themselves, their families, and our communities.

Lonnie Powers is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

Civil Legal Aid Can Help Veterans Struggling With Homelessness

By Lonnie Powers

On any given night in the U.S., close to 39,500 military veterans are homeless. Nearly 1,000 of them are in Massachusetts.

These are men and women who have put their lives on the line in the deserts and mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the jungles of Vietnam. They fought in the Korean War, Panama, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf. And yet, after all they endured in service to our country, they are sleeping in shelters, and living on the streets or in homeless encampments.

The reasons for their homelessness are complex. There are the general stressors that contribute to homelessness such as a shortage of affordable housing and limited opportunities to earn a living wage, coupled with the fact that military training and occupations don’t always translate well to the civilian workforce. Those issues are compounded by mental health problems that result from, or were exacerbated by, their service and the absence of social support networks. Child support arrears have also been identified as a leading cause of homelessness among veterans.

Recognizing the scale of the problem, in 2010 President Barack Obama launched an initiative aimed at ending veteran homelessness by 2015. As part of that, cities across the country, including a handful in Massachusetts, joined the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. And while the initiative’s ultimate goal has yet to be achieved, homelessness among veterans has fallen nationally by 47 percent in the last six years, while unsheltered homelessness has been reduced by 56 percent. Locally, Lynn became the first Massachusetts city to end veterans’ homelessness earlier this year. Boston has succeeded in housing all but just a small number of veterans who are homeless as of the beginning of this year.

Civil legal aid—free legal assistance or representation for low-income individuals facing non-criminal legal issues—has been an integral part of ensuring our veterans have safe, stable housing. The Department of Justice has noted that four of the most pressing unmet needs of homeless veterans involve legal assistance: preventing eviction/foreclosure, child support issues, outstanding warrants/fines, and restoration of a driver’s license. Recognizing the need, the Department of Veterans Affairs has made grant funding available to legal aid organizations to assist veterans as part of President Obama’s initiative.

In addition to working to get veterans into permanent housing, civil legal aid is often an effective intervention for veterans who are at risk of becoming homeless—an estimated 1.4 million veterans nationwide. For example, several years ago, Legal Assistance Corp. of Central Massachusetts, now known as Community Legal Aid (CLA) helped Iraq War veteran Michael Damon and his family avoid foreclosure on their Uxbridge home. The family fell into financial hardship when war-related injuries left Damon disabled and he was ineligible to receive workers’ compensation. His injuries made him unable to care for his two children, which prevented his wife Lisa from working full-time. It wasn’t long before they received a foreclosure notice. Damon’s legal aid attorney filed suit on the family’s behalf against Countrywide Home Loans and Deutsche Bank. Their case was ultimately settled after their attorney was able to assist the Damons in repurchasing their home with a more affordable mortgage.

In another instance, MetroWest Legal Services (MWLS) succeeded in helping a 17-year Air Force veteran keep a roof over her head after a layoff and a stretch of unemployment brought her close to financial ruin. An MWLS attorney helped the veteran file for bankruptcy and represented her at the hearing, which resulted in the discharge of a large credit card debt—and a more stable financial future.

The theme of Veterans Day this year is “Courage-Honoring All Who Served.” As we honor and thank those who have served in our military, we must remember that for far too many veterans, the perils of service do not end with discharge from the military. If we truly want to honor all of our military veterans, we must ensure that the most vulnerable among them have the services and support they need and deserve to thrive as civilians.

Lonnie Powers is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

Meeting The Civil Legal Needs Of LGBT People

By Lonnie Powers

In January, Legal Services NYC (LSNY) released the report “Poverty is an LGBT Issue: An Assessment of the Legal Needs of Low-Income LGBT People.” Analyzing survey data from more than 300 low-income LGBT New Yorkers about their experiences with a range of civil legal issues — non-criminal legal matters like access to housing or health care — it is the first report of its kind to be done in this country. The assessment is sobering, especially given the myth of “gay affluence“ that is perpetuated by the mainstream media and right-wing opponents of gay rights — including the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — that gay people are monolithically well-educated, rich, and politically powerful urban dwellers who do not need or deserve the support of our legal system.

Such portrayals could not be further from the truth. As the report’s authors point out, Gallup research from 2012 showed that more than 20 percent of LGBT people living alone had annual incomes below $12,000 — only slightly above the federal poverty line — compared with 17 percent of non-LGBT people living alone. Another study found that transgender Americans are nearly four times more likely than the population as a whole to have an annual household income of less than $10,000. Other research shows that married or partnered LGBT parents raising children are twice as likely to have household incomes near the poverty level compared to married or partnered non-LGBT parents.

As LSNY’s report notes, LGBT people living in poverty often face multiple levels of marginalization. Just like other individuals and families struggling to make ends meet, low-income LGBT people have legal needs related to accessing affordable housing, employment, health care, governmental social safety nets, and legal protections for their families. However, their economic and legal struggles are often compounded by, if not the direct result of, an added layer of anti-LGBT bias.

For example, due to longstanding institutional bias against transgender people, most insurance carriers refuse to cover medical treatment related to gender transition. A recent change to the Affordable Care Act prohibits what had previously been allowed: blanket exclusion of care, including hormone therapy, gender reassignment surgery, and other treatment that mainstream medical and psychiatric associations agree is medically necessary for the health of transgender people. Under the new rule, any care that is covered for patients who are not transgender (i.e. hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women, mastectomies for women at risk of breast cancer, and reconstructive surgeries) must now be covered for transgender patients. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights began implementing the nondiscrimination provision in July. But if past experience is a guide, civil litigation will likely play a role in ensuring that insurers comply with the new rule.

Civil legal aid organizations, which provide free legal assistance and representation to low-income people facing non-criminal legal issues, have played an important role in helping vulnerable LGBT people achieve health, economic, and social equity. Take, for example, the announcements last November by CareFirst, Maryland’s largest health insurer, and Maryland Medical Assistance, the state’s Medicaid program, that they would cover medical treatment related to gender transition. Both policy changes resulted from the litigation and legal advocacy done by FreeState Legal, a civil legal aid organization that serves LGBT Marylanders. In California, the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center successfully litigated Dragovich v. California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS). This federal class action suit was filed on behalf of state workers whose same-sex spouses or registered domestic partners were excluded from CalPERS-sponsored long-term care insurance coverage, as required by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law that prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Dragovich was among the earliest legal challenges to DOMA, which was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.

Here in Massachusetts, in 2008 an attorney from Legal Assistance Corporation of Central Massachusetts (LACCM) (now Community Legal Aid), represented a transgender couple that was passed over for an apartment rental in the town of Oxford in favor of “a straight, single male,” according to the real estate agent who showed them the property. The women, Samantha Cornell and Andrea V. Boisseau, became homeless after being denied the apartment. LACCM found evidence the couple had been discriminated against based on their gender identities, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, and disability status. LACCM attorney Jane Edmonstone negotiated a settlement that included damages and attorney’s fees for Cornell and Boisseau and mandated fair housing training for the offending rental agent.

Our country has made tremendous and speedy strides toward full legal equality for LGBT people thanks to the groundbreaking work of LGBT impact litigation and legal advocacy organizations like GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center. As we have seen recently with the spate of state laws aimed at prohibiting equal access to public accommodations for transgender people, much work remains to be done in this area. By ensuring that the most vulnerable members of an already vulnerable community have the legal representation they need and deserve, civil legal aid organizations play a vital role in advancing LGBT rights.

Lonnie Powers is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

Want justice? Don’t be shy—grab the spotlight

By Lonnie Powers

Civil legal aid organizations are in the business of advancing one of the biggest, boldest ideas ever conceived in our nation: justice for all. It’s an idea with roots in our country’s founding principle that we are all equal participants in our society and thus deserving of equal rights, opportunities, and the protections of the law.

Of course, implementing big, bold ideas requires persistence, imagination, and money. The problem with civil legal aid, which provides legal advice or representation to people struggling to make ends meet, is that it has been severely underfunded since its inception in the late 1800s. Consequently, poor people facing non-criminal legal matters such as eviction, foreclosure, access to educational accommodations, or assistance to escape domestic abuse are left without help. Sadly, this exclusion of millions of Americans from justice remains unseen.

In a history compiled by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), authors Alan Houseman and Linda Perle note that in the early 1900s “no legal aid program had adequate resources,” and that “legal aid reached less than 1 percent of those in need.” Civil legal aid programs began receiving federal funding in the 1960s as part of the War on Poverty and now also receive funding from IOLTA programs in every state, along with state and local support. (IOLTA stands for Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts and is the money earned from interest-bearing accounts with funds pooled from lawyers handling nominal or short-term client funds.) Unfortunately, demand for services continues to outstrip supply by an alarming margin; nationally, more than 50 percent of those who seek civil legal aid are turned away due to lack of resources. Here in Massachusetts, the number is even higher, with nearly two-thirds of eligible people seeking legal assistance being turned away.

Funding woes stem in large part from a lack of public knowledge about civil legal aid, despite broad support for the ideals of fairness and justice. The average person simply does not know what civil legal aid is and how its benefits often extend beyond the individuals who receive it to the larger society by bringing about systemic reform, assisting people in remaining independent rather than reliant on government services, and helping our judicial system to run more efficiently. Civil legal aid is not a cause that lends itself easily to catchy slogans, buzz-worthy viral marketing campaigns, or celebrity endorsements.

So what should we do? Sean Gibbons, executive director of The Communications Network, offered some advice in the Stanford Social Innovation Review last February: “At their core, foundations and nonprofits are in the business of developing and advancing big, bold ideas. If you want your ideas to take hold and win, you need to communicate and communicate well. It’s not an option anymore—it’s a necessity.”

Recognizing this new reality, in 2013, national civil legal aid advocates and leaders formed Voices for Civil Justice, an organization dedicated to increasing the visibility of civil legal aid in the national media, increasing the capacity for media advocacy in civil legal aid organizations, and strengthening the notion of civil legal aid as an indispensable societal resource. Taking a strategic approach to educating the public about civil legal aid, the organization has funded messaging research and developed tools and other resources to help civil legal aid advocates speak more effectively about their work and do a better job of engaging the media in covering that work. This strategy is paying dividends, judging by Voices for Civil Justice’s press clips page, which is packed with stories that bring much-needed attention to the various barriers to justice  and the organizations and individuals that are working to overcome them.

For civil legal aid to fulfill its mission of ensuring access to justice for all, we must become better known and appreciated by the public. Accomplishing that requires broadcasting the stories of the people we serve―and the life-changing, live-saving work we do on their behalf and for the good of society. To do that, organizations must invest in strategic communications.

As Voices’ executive director Martha Bergmark told me, “At Voices for Civil Justice, we provide opinion research, messages, training and other resources to help the people who do know about the vital role of civil legal aid to be more effective and more frequent messengers―whether they’re communicating with a policy maker, a reporter, a donor, or their in-laws.”

There is a strong body of research and case studies that offer successful models for effectively sharing our stories of impact. In fact, the piece by Sean Gibbons quoted above was penned as part of a collaboration between The Communications Network and the Stanford Social Innovation Review on series of articles by nonprofit and foundation leaders showcasing successful social change communications campaigns. The Communications Network has created the portal com-matters.org to disseminate its model for effective social change communications based on a large research project it completed in 2014.

These are just a few of the resources available to us as we look to create platforms from which to spread the word about the critical but overlooked role that civil legal aid plays in our society. If you work in the field and aren’t yet a member of the JusticeVoices Network, consider signing up! While those of us doing this work are surely not in it for the glory, the time for toiling in obscurity is over.

Lonnie Powers is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

 

When Legal Assistance Can Improve Health

By Lonnie Powers

In April, The National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership (NCMLP), an organization dedicated to “leading health, public health, and legal sectors in an integrated, upstream approach to combating health-harming social conditions,” played host to more than 400 legal and health care professionals at its 11th annual Medical-Legal Partnership Summit in Indianapolis. The annual confab seeks to help organizations leverage the various ways in which civil legal aid—free legal assistance and representation for low-income people facing non-criminal legal issues—can protect individual and public health.

The idea that legal assistance could impact public health was proved in 1975, when California Rural Legal Assistance won a groundbreaking victory in Carmona v. Division of Industrial Safety, which banned the use of short-handled hoes by farm workers because they forced workers to stay bent over for long periods of time, causing them crippling back injuries. Field managers had required the use of short-handled hoes because if they saw workers standing up, they knew they were not doing their work. After the hoes were banned, back injuries among the farm workers dropped more than 30 percent.

More recently in Massachusetts, Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) won two victories that enhance the health, safety, and independence of disabled people. First, GBLS settled a federal class action lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) for disability discrimination, based on claims that DTA didn’t have adequate systems to provide disabled clients with reasonable accommodations and that it routinely screened out disabled people from food stamp and cash assistance programs in violation of federal law. In a second class action lawsuit, GBLS took on the MBTA, Boston’s regional public transportation system, reaching a settlement requiring the MBTA to improve accessibility to bus and subway services. As a result, the MBTA has made nearly all of its stations fully accessible and has trained staff to respond to the needs of differently abled people using public transportation.

The formal medical-legal partnership model was created at Boston Medical Center (BMC) in the 1990s, when Dr. Barry Zuckerman, then the chief of pediatrics, became frustrated by the lack of clinical progress of his young patients as a result of substandard housing, poor nutrition, and other life circumstances―what are known as “social determinants of health.” Zuckerman hired a part-time attorney from Greater Boston Legal Services for the Pediatrics Department to assist his patients in addressing these unmet needs. The success of the program ultimately led to the creation of NCMLP.

Today, there are nearly 300 medical-legal partnerships in health care facilities in 36 states, including a partnership launched last September between Community Legal Aid and UMass Memorial Health Care in Worcester. Medical-legal partnershipsinvolve embedding lawyers and paralegals in the medical setting to ensure that patients can meet basic needs for food, housing and utilities, education, employment, health care, and personal and family stability and safety―all of which are essential ingredients to maintaining good health. The concept is best encapsulated by the description of a September 2015 segment of PBS NewsHourthat examined a medical-legal partnership in Nebraska: “What happens when a little boy gets a lifesaving bone marrow transplant for his leukemia, but can’t return home because the house he lives in has cockroaches that threaten his recovery? His doctor calls a lawyer.”

The partnerships go far beyond direct advocacy to encompass training for health care workers to identify health-harming social conditions, reforming clinical practice and institutional policies to better respond to patients experiencing health-harming conditions, and preventing such conditions by detecting the broader societal patterns that create them and advocating for policy and regulatory remedies.

Medical-legal partnerships are taking off as health care providers increasingly acknowledge their positive effects on patient health, the ability of health care workers to better understand and screen patients for social determinants of health, and in reining in health care costs. A study of a medical-legal partnership in California, for example, found that two-thirds of the families who participated in the program reported improved child health and well-being. Another study, which focused on a collaboration in Georgia, found increased physician satisfaction, a bump in Medicaid reimbursements to the partnering hospitals for their services, and a savings of $10,000 in annual continuing education costs.

From migrant farmworkers in California in the 1970s to disabled people in Massachusetts three decades later, civil legal aid organizations have long demonstrated expertise in identifying and rectifying the environmental factors that adversely impact the health and safety of vulnerable and underserved communities. Institutionalizing that expertise on the health care continuum through medical-legal partnerships is a logical step that enables our health care system to treat our most complex and vulnerable patients more effectively, efficiently, and cheaply. And that benefits all of us.

Lonnie Powers is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

Civil Legal Aid Holds the Key to Preventing Evictions

By Sarah Blair

Matthew Desmond is a very smart man. An associate professor and former Junior Fellow at Harvard, Desmond holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and has published four books, the most recent of which, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City was released on March 1. In September, Desmond was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant to pursue research on evictions around the world.

After spending over a year living amidst Milwaukee’s poor, Desmond is something of an expert on eviction. He is well aware of the disproportionate impact it has on women and communities of color. He knows that past eviction correlates strongly with material hardship and depression, and that housing instability can harm a child’s ability to succeed in school. He also understands that having access to an attorney is perhaps the most powerful tool available to keep families faced with evictions in their homes.

But the sad reality is that if these families had the money to hire an attorney, they would probably not be facing eviction in the first place. Perhaps the family fell behind on rent because of an unexpected illness or layoff. Perhaps it is facing discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, or physical ability, or retaliation after reporting unsafe living conditions. Regardless of the legitimacy of their claims, these unrepresented families often stand little chance when facing their landlords’ trained attorneys in court.

While indigent defendants in serious criminal cases have a constitutional right to an attorney, individuals facing life-altering civil legal problems—such as the threat of homelessness—do not. Civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts and throughout the country do their best to provide low-income litigants, including tenants facing eviction, with the critical advice and representation they need to achieve justice.  A 2012 eviction study conducted by the Boston Bar Association in Quincy, Massachusetts, found that two-thirds of tenants who received full representation were able to avoid eviction; meanwhile, only one-third of tenants who were offered limited assistance were able to remain in their homes.

Unfortunately, over half of eligible clients who seek civil legal aid for housing cases in Massachusetts are turned away due to lack of funding. This “justice gap” is unacceptable—particularly considering that investing in civil legal aid actually saves the state money in the long run. In Massachusetts, it is estimated that legal aid eviction assistance saved the Commonwealth over seven million dollars in averted shelter costs in FY15 alone.

Housing instability is one of the most pervasive problems facing the urban poor, and civil legal aid is a proactive, cost-effective solution to the social and economic problems that it causes. As Desmond eloquently puts it, “There are moral costs we incur as a society when our citizens are denied equal protection under the law and wrongfully thrown from their homes by court order.” With all the evidence in place, it shouldn’t take a genius to support increased funding for civil legal aid.

Sarah Blair is Executive Assistant at the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and Legislative Campaign Assistant at the Equal Justice Coalition.

Employing Civil Legal Aid in Closing the Wage Gap

By Lonnie Powers

Here’s an economic statistic that holds true in almost every part of the world: women are significantly more likely to be poor than men. In the United States, 16 percent of women live below the federal poverty line, compared with 12 percent of men.

Why is this? When we think about gender inequality in the workplace, it’s often in the context of the “wage gap,” the well-documented phenomenon of women making less than their male colleagues for the same amount of work. Though more American women are finishing college these days than men, a woman with a bachelor’s degree can still expect to take home a lower salary than a man with the same degree. Averaging incomes across the nation, women make about 78.3 cents for every dollar earned by men. President Obama, who signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law at the very beginning of his first term, has often called for measures to close the wage gap; however, income averages have moved very little over the past seven years, even at the White House.

But comprehensive data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that closing the wage gap will not, of itself, solve the problem of female poverty. The likelihood of a woman being poor is closely tied to racial and socioeconomic factors that also affect men of the same background. The special economic pressures and social expectations that women live under, however, make them uniquely vulnerable to sliding deeper into poverty over time. Out of all the household types in the U.S., single mothers with children are the most impoverished by a large margin, bringing in lower incomes than single fathers with children, or childless single individuals of either gender. Women with limited support networks, who are attempting to allocate limited time and limited funds among the demands of employment, childcare, and household and medical needs, are often one misfortune from economic disaster.

So it’s not at all surprising that civil legal aid organizations, which assist low-income individuals and families who are facing non-criminal legal issues like eviction, unfair employment practices, and barriers to critical social safety nets, report that a whopping 70 percent of their clients are women.

Typical among these women is Carmelita, a healthcare worker and single mother from Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood. After Carmelita’s 7-year-old daughter was diagnosed with mental and psychological disorders, Carmelita asked that her full-time hours be reduced so that she could spend more time caring for her daughter–a job that too often fell to Carmelita’s 17-year-old son, at the expense of his educational needs. With no part-time work available at the health center where she was employed, Carmelita was forced to choose between her job and her daughter’s health and well-being. She resigned her position to seek a part-time job.

Carmelita believed she’d be eligible for unemployment benefits while she sought part-time work because she had left for a good reason. However, under a Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance regulation, anyone looking for part-time work after a recent history of full-time employment was automatically denied benefits. Carmelita was told she could appeal, but her chances of prevailing seemed slim―until she contacted Greater Boston Legal Services. A legal aid attorney represented Carmelita at the appeal, and successfully argued that the unemployment regulation had exceptions for people with disabilities and it should be the same for the caretaker of a child with disabilities. The case set a precedent for other working parents to receive the same protection. Civil legal aid spared Carmelita and her family from financial ruin. More important, her daughter’s condition improved significantly.

Poverty has more than one cause. Naturally, fighting poverty requires more than one simple solution. In addition to closing the gender wage gap, the enactment of employment reforms that would give the most vulnerable women–low-income mothers who are the primary caregivers of their children–true stability is critical to fighting poverty among women. Onsite childcare options, or pay increases sufficient to cover the cost of childcare, would allow women to securely hold down a job instead of relying on ad hoc childcare arrangements, or being forced into poorly compensated part-time work. Paid maternity leave, a mandatory employment policy in every other developed country, would also give women the ability to care for newborn infants without risking their financial livelihoods. In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh recently instituted a paid parental leave policy for all City of Boston employees, while Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Healey has done the same for her employees. Other employers should follow their lead and look for creative ways to address pervasive economic injustices.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.

Civil Legal Assistance is a Potent Anti-poverty Tool

By Lonnie Powers

Sargent Shriver, President Johnson’s personal choice to lead the War on Poverty, was once asked which of the anti-poverty programs he thought was the most important. “My favorite is Head Start because it was my idea,” he answered. “But I am proudest of Legal Services because I recognized that it had the greatest potential for changing the system under which people’s lives were being exploited.”

Legal services, also known as civil legal aid, has indeed been a potent anti-poverty tool in two ways. First, through individual case work that enables poor people to gain access to the rights and benefits from state and federal service agencies, health care providers and schools to which they are entitled. Second, through large, class-action lawsuits and advocacy efforts that change laws and governmental policies that adversely — and overwhelmingly — affect poor people.

With the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty in 2014, we have been treated to numerous assessments of the effectiveness of Johnson’s (and Shriver’s) program these past 12 months. It is indisputable both that tremendous progress has been made, but also that much work remains.

To continue progress, civil legal aid must be deployed more broadly in future efforts to combat poverty, and public resources for legal assistance must be increased greatly.

A look at how civil legal aid assists those struggling with homelessness and/or unstable housing, as well as those who are victims of intimate partner violence is instructive.

Numerous programs around the country demonstrate that civil legal services can help poor people keep their housing, or negotiate exits from housing that allow them to have more control over the process, and ensure a smooth transition to safe, affordable housing. A pilot program launched in 2009 by the Boston Bar Association showed conclusively that poor people in housing court in Quincy, Mass. to fight eviction notices fared much better when they were represented by attorneys. Two-thirds of those with full representation kept their housing; only one-third of those who went through housing court without an attorney were able to do the same. Similar results have been found in New York City, San Francisco and San Mateo County in California.

Meanwhile, a landmark 2003 study published in Contemporary Economic Policy showed that legal services is one of the most effective ways to help women living in poverty escape intimate partner violence. Amy Farmer and Jill Tiefenthaler, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon Census Research Data Center, were intrigued by a U.S. Department of Justice report noting that rates of domestic violence had significantly declined during the 1990s. They analyzed data from the National Crime Victimization Survey and the U.S. Census to tease out the reasons for the decline. Their conclusion? Access to civil legal services ensured delivery of protective orders; assistance with child custody and support; and divorce and property distribution that victims needed to begin rebuilding their lives. Civil legal assistance was also critical for resolution of domestic violence-related legal disputes around immigration, housing and public benefits.

While services provided by emergency shelters, counselors, and hotlines are vital in the short-term, Farmer and Tiefenthaler wrote, services provided by civil legal aid “appear to actually present women with real, long-term alternatives to their relationships.” (It is also interesting to note that between 1994 and 2000, the period during which incidents of domestic violence declined, the availability of civil legal services for victims of domestic violence increased 245 percent (from 336 such programs to 1,441).

Despite these clear successes, many people do not understand what civil legal aid is, and surveys regularly find that most Americans erroneously believe that poor people have a right to free counsel in civil cases. Meanwhile, state and federal funding for legal assistance is well below what it needs to be.

This fall, the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts released Investing in Justice, a report showing that over 60 percent of those eligible for civil legal aid in Massachusetts who seek services are turned away due to lack of resources. The Task Force proposed that the Commonwealth’s investment in civil legal aid be increased by $30 million over the next three years to begin to address the unmet need. Currently, the state invests $15 million annually in civil legal aid.

The irony, of course, is that the civil legal aid yields a measurable — and significant — return on investment. Looking at work solely related to housing, public benefits and domestic violence, three independent economic consulting firms which did analyses for the Task Force found that every dollar spent on civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure cases saved the state $2.69 on state services associated with housing needs such as “emergency shelter, health care, foster care, and law enforcement.” Every dollar spent assisting qualified people to receive federal benefits brings in $5 to the state. Every dollar spent on civil legal aid related to domestic violence is offset by a dollar in medical costs averted due to fewer incidents of assault.

This summer, Philadelphia resident Tianna Gaines-Turner became the first person actually living in poverty to testify before Congressman Paul Ryan’s Congressional hearings on the War on Poverty. In a strong and moving testament to the need for increased state and federal funding to end poverty, Gaines-Turner said, “People living in poverty―those who were born into it, and those who are down on their luck — want to get out of poverty. We want to create our own safety nets, so we never have to depend on government assistance again.”

Civil legal aid is a powerful tool that helps people living in poverty build a foundation of stability from which they can create a better future for themselves, their families and our communities.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.

Communication Matters: Getting Your Message Out

By Lonnie Powers

When it comes to creating social change, strategic communications brings great value. The Communications Network, a nonprofit that supports foundations and nonprofits in finding ways to communicate more effectively, puts it this way: “Communication matters. Organizations that do it well are stronger, smarter and vastly more effective.”

The civil legal aid community here in Massachusetts is taking that message to heart, using three approaches to communications in order to broaden its impact. These approaches apply to foundations and nonprofits alike.

The first is to communicate proactively with the media to educate the public. We have partnered with Voices for Civil Justice, a new national, non-partisan, Washington D.C.-based communications hub funded by the Public Welfare Foundation and the Kresge Foundation to raise public awareness of the vital role of civil legal aid in helping people protect their livelihoods, their health and their families. We strive to show how important civil legal aid is on a wide range of critical issues that affect lower and middle class Americans, such as increasing educational opportunities, ensuring access to safe, affordable housing, and preventing domestic violence to name just a few.

Those of us who work in civil legal aid already know its value in helping people with basic necessities such as housing, employment, classroom accommodations for our children with disabilities and family conflicts related to child support and custody, divorce and domestic violence. Yet opinion research shows that the public is largely unaware of what civil legal aid is, and many of the daily victories that come about thanks to civil legal aid are not reported as such. Instead, media stories about poor people who have successfully fought illegal home foreclosures, obtained court protection from a domestic abuser, or appealed for federal benefits that were improperly denied, are told as stand-alone battles without revealing the critical role of legal advocates and unconnected to the broader civil legal aid movement.

With Voices for Civil Justice, we are teaching civil legal aid organizations how to change this by engaging proactively in media outreach in order to tell their stories to a wider audience. We encourage organizations to employ tactics as simple as asking reporters to define their organization as a “civil legal aid organization.” We also encourage them to submit letters to the editor and opinion pieces about the impact of civil legal aid on a wide range of issues in the news every day.

Another communications tool that can be employed to influence policymakers and elected officials who direct public spending on social justice issues, is the issuance of a nonpartisan, data-filled report. This past October, the Boston Bar Association Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts released a groundbreaking report that quantified the unmet need for civil legal aid, and estimated the savings to taxpayers if those needs were met. The report found that 64 percent of eligible clients in Massachusetts are turned away by civil legal aid organizations due to lack of resources. The three independent economic consulting firms that did analyses for the Task Force also found that every dollar spent on civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure cases saved the state $2.69 on state services associated with housing needs, and every dollar spent on assisting qualified people to receive federal benefits brought in $5 to the state.

While these reports generate media coverage, they can also influence elected officials to direct more resources to important social issues. Look no further than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to see the importance of communicating effectively with the public sector to achieve policy goals. The Gates Foundation is endowed with approximately $30 billion, which sounds like a lot of money until you compare it with the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is approximately $30 billion annually. That’s why when the Gates Foundation launched its Grand Challenges for Globe Health (GCGH) initiative, it engaged in a strategic campaign to influence decision-makers at NIH to direct more resources to global health challenges. The campaign, which included the issuance of policy and research papers directed at NIH decision-makers, was successful. A 2008 article in the scholarly journal EMBO Reports reported that “NIH supplemented the GCGH with increased funding of approximately US$1 billion for global health issues at a time when the overall NIH budget experienced little growth.”

The final communication strategy that every funder should embrace, and which we employ in the civil legal aid community, is to make it clear to grantees that it’s okay to spend resources on communications. By sharing stories of success, grantees are doing much more than assuring funders that the work is getting done. They are educating the public about existing need, and inspiring others to create change as well.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.