BOSTON, May 16, 2017―Today, the Senate Ways & Means Committee recommended funding civil legal aid in the Commonwealth at the same level as last year—$18 million. Given the depth of unmet need for civil legal aid services among people living in poverty, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) will continue to advocate for an additional $2 million in funding by the Senate.
“Right now, civil legal aid programs around the state turn away approximately 57,000 people eligible for legal aid each year. Access to justice should not depend on your income. The potential loss of federal funds for civil legal aid and other social safety net programs suggests this disparity will only increase. Given the significant economic returns for the state generated by civil legal aid, this is an investment that the state should be making,” said Lonnie Powers, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). “Public monies should be spent on programs that are effective and efficient, and civil legal aid is both.”
Senator Cynthia Creem and Senator William Brownsberger will file an amendment to increase the Senate Ways & Means recommendation by $2 million, for a total appropriation of $20 million, as the Senate budget is debated. This funding increase would be another important step in addressing the significant unmet need among those who are eligible for, and seek, civil legal aid. Eligible residents are those with incomes at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level, or $30,750 annually for a family of four.
“Our programs around the state ensure that people living in poverty get the legal help they need when faced with life-changing legal issues related to housing, employment, access to health care, education and others.” Powers added. “Unfortunately, without this increase in funding, legal aid programs will be forced to continue to turn away many people eligible for assistance with civil legal issues that threaten their safety and stability.”
Earlier this year, MLAC released its annual Economic Benefits Report, which showed that civil legal assistance provided by MLAC-funded programs in fiscal year 2016 yielded at least $49.3 million in savings or new revenue for the state and its residents. Successful representation in appeals to Social Security Insurance, Social Security Disability Insurance, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare coverage, and federal tax decisions resulted in $15.8 million in new federal revenue for the Commonwealth. An additional $21.2 million was gained through child support orders, debt relief for homeowners in foreclosure cases, and additional non-federal Unemployment Insurance claims and representation for tenants. The state saved $12.1 million in services that it would have otherwise provided if not for civil legal aid. These services include emergency shelter, foster care, and medical costs related to domestic violence.
“Legal aid organizations serve our most vulnerable residents by helping them avoid homelessness and unemployment, gain access to health care and veterans’ services, receive a quality education, and escape domestic violence. Access to legal advice and representation should not be dependent on income, and we must ensure that these programs have the resources they need,” said Marijane Benner Browne, chair of the MLAC Board of Directors. “
The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that low-income people with critical, non-criminal legal problems would have access to legal information, advice and representation. MLAC is the largest funding source for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts.