Posts

MetroWest Legal Services: Fighting for Equal Justice for Over 40 Years

By John Carroll

The service area of MetroWest Legal Services (MWLS) encompasses the soon-to-be-city of Framingham (town residents voted to transition to city status as of Jan. 1, 2018) and 44 surrounding towns west of Boston. Despite a staff of just 22—including 15 full-time attorneys, the organization assists over 2,500 low-income people a year in resolving non-criminal legal matters related to basic but essential needs like housing, health care, protection from domestic abuse, and child support. Needless to say, the MWLS office is usually a pretty busy place.

Nonetheless, Tuesday, August 22 was more hectic than usual. By noon that day, three homeless families turned up at MWLS after being told they did not qualify for state-run Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter. Two of the families weren’t even allowed to fill out an application—they were simply turned away after cursory interviews in which they attempted to briefly explain the complex circumstances of their homelessness. These three families brought the total number of homeless families seeking MWLS’s help getting emergency shelter over 10-day period to six.

“As I heard these stories, one was worse than the next,” wrote MWLS Executive Director Elizabeth “Betsy” Soulé in a recent MWLS newsletter. A mother and child sleeping in their car at a local park. A mother and her severely autistic child who fled domestic violence in another country were made to leave the apartment of the mother’s sister, lest the sister be evicted. A disabled veteran, his recently unemployed wife, teenage son, service dog and aging cat who had been sleeping in their car for two months. The reasons they were turned away from emergency shelter were senseless. The mother and child sleeping at the park, for example, were denied because, lacking a camera or a phone with a camera, they couldn’t produce photographic evidence that they were sleeping in their car.

Fortunately, after a day and a half of meetings and negotiations with the legal department of the state agency that administers emergency shelter, MWLS saw to it that these families received the services they needed. Even better, in the interim, a generous MWLS donor provided funds to rent hotel rooms for the stranded families.

Aside from housing, MWLS includes units dedicated to elder issues, special education, domestic violence, immigration, victims of crime, worker related issues, and others, as well as an innovative medical-legal partnership with the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center in Framingham.

MWLS was founded in 1976 as an arm of the South Middlesex Opportunity Council. Since then, it has merged through several iterations into the multi-service legal office that it is today. Soulé’s tenure at MWLS stretches nearly 30 years to 1988, when she joined the organization as a supervising attorney. She has served as executive director since 2008, overseeing MWLS’s vast service area, which encompasses 25-30 House districts and 10 Senatorial districts, with political aplomb. Soulé knows all of the area’s elected officials, and they know her. They also know that she serves their mutual constituents very well. With more than 40,000 people living in poverty in the MWLS service area, Soulé does her best to see that all eligible citizens are served well, but she knows the blanket is too small for the bed. As she lamented in a local newspaper profile on the occasion of the MWLS’s 40th anniversary last year, “there are just way more people who need our help than we can reach because of a lack of resources.

Despite the daily struggle to meet the needs of as many clients as possible, MWLS staff are deeply committed to working to remove barriers to justice for low-income people west of Boston.

“Nobody goes into this for the money,” Soulé told the Boston Globe last year. “They’re doing it because it’s important and they’re committed to the mission. It’s tough work. It’s intense work, but the benefits literally mean the difference between life and death sometimes.”

***

John Carroll is a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.

Prisoners’ Legal Services: Working to Depoliticize Incarceration

By John Carroll

On May 16, 2017, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to mentally and physically disabled prisoners seeking parole, requiring  the state  to assist them in developing release plans that address their disabilities with an eye toward reducing the chances that the paroled individual will re-offend and be returned to prison.

Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS) filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiff, Richard Crowell, in this landmark case and was very pleased with his victory. Ensuring proper health care—including mental health services—for prisoners with serious medical needs is one of the organization’s four litigation priority areas.

PLS’s other litigation priorities are staff brutality, unfair and discriminatory segregation, and unconstitutional conditions of confinement, all of which—along with the health issue—the organization believes have reached crisis proportions in the state. For example, Massachusetts is one of a small handful of states in the country that allows solitary confinement for up to 10 consecutive years for one disciplinary offense. PLS is currently supporting proposed legislation to reform the use of solitary confinement in Massachusetts, and the organization created a powerful seven-minute documentary video about the lasting effects of solitary confinement. The organization is also advocating legislation that would allow for compassionate release, such as was recently granted former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi at the federal level. Massachusetts is one of only three states that does not provide incapacitated or terminally ill prisoners the ability to die in their community.

Founded in 1972, PLS is funded chiefly by the Supreme Judicial Court and augmented by grants from other funders, notably the Massachusetts Bar Foundation and the Boston Bar Foundation. Led by executive director Leslie Walker, the organization’s small staff of nine lawyers, four paralegals and three support staff serves the entire state and county correctional system. Prisoners and their family members often make contact with PLS through its website or through defense attorneys who alert the organization when they have concerns about how detained or incarcerated clients are being treated within the prison system. Judges occasionally contact them for the same reason. PLS also disseminates a newsletter throughout the correctional system.

Walker’s interest in prisoner’s rights is rooted in her experience representing an inmate on an administrative charge—which she ultimately proved untrue—as a young Northeastern University law student. She recalled how her client once pointed out to her that, among the 45 prisoners in his cell block, many were relatives and friends from the client’s neighborhood. At that point she realized that crime is a byproduct of poverty. The more Walker studied the field, the more she wondered about the purpose of punishment in light of statistics showing that more than 40 percent of prisoners in Massachusetts will be re-incarcerated within three years.

Prison does not prepare prisoners to re-enter society, Walker concluded. They leave with few marketable skills and because of their criminal record, many are barred from living with their families in public housing, families that could potentially provide material and emotional support, creating a recipe for failure in the free world.

Over time, Walker’s philosophy on incarceration has evolved into three principles: 1) reward good behavior 2) ignore bad behavior if you can, and 3) punish in as limited a manner as possible.

“If we viewed corrections in a less politicized way, with a greater respect for the intrinsic dignity of the of the incarcerated population,” says Walker, “we would see that building more jails reinforces the problem rather than reducing it.”

***

John Carroll is a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.

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.

Investing in Legal Aid Is Good Business

By Lonnie Powers

In law as in medicine, an emergency room is neither the most cost effective nor beneficial way to deliver justice or provide health care. Seeing your doctor regularly makes it easier and less expensive for individuals and for the health care system overall to stay healthy. Having a lawyer to advise and assist you when you confront a legal problem brings similar benefits to the system of justice.

Unfortunately, because lawyers are not available for those who cannot afford them in civil matters, the courts have become “the emergency rooms of society” as New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman put it in an article for The Judge’s Journal earlier this year. Courtrooms are where we turn when we need help resolving conflicts over 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.

Just as operating rooms need trained doctors, the courts only work when all parties have access to legal advice and assistance. If, as often happens, only one side has a lawyer, the playing field is anything but level for the person without help and advice. While people facing serious criminal charges have a right to a lawyer, that is not the case in even very serious civil matters. In civil matters, if you cannot afford an attorney, you can apply for legal aid services, which are approved on the basis of financial need. But there are not nearly enough resources to meet the need. A staggering 64 percent of eligible clients in Massachusetts are turned away by civil legal aid organizations due to lack of resources according to a recent report by the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.

What this means for our courts, in practical terms, is that court staff have to spend more time assisting litigants who are trying to represent themselves; civil court proceedings are markedly slowed down; evidence is not properly presented; and litigants make repeat court appearances. Most alarming, however, is that 60 percent of the Massachusetts judges surveyed for the report stated unequivocally that lack of legal representation was hindering the courts’ ability to ensure equal justice for litigants attempting to represent themselves.

This isn’t just a matter of concern for the usual suspects, such as civil legal aid attorneys, case workers, social justice advocates, and those in need of legal services who cannot afford them. It’s a matter of grave concern for the state’s business leaders. Susan Alexander, Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary for Biogen Idec, Inc., which employs more than 3,000 Massachusetts residents, notes in her statement to the task force report that Biogen, like all businesses in the Commonwealth, can only thrive in a healthy state. “Legal aid has the power to maintain safe and vibrant communities during difficult economic times by keeping families from homelessness and poverty,” Alexander writes.

Lon Povich, Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary of BJ’s Wholesale Club, notes simply that the inefficiencies generated in the courts by pro se, or self-represented, litigants damages the entire system. “Saying that these individual, civil cases ‘clog’ court dockets makes it sound like they are unimportant, which they are not, but they take more time of our overworked judges and staff than do similar matters involving represented parties,” Povich says. “As a result, the current deluge of pro se litigants limits the effectiveness of the courts for all individuals and businesses in our state.”

Left unsaid by these business leaders is another salient point: the return on investment in civil legal aid services. 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 on assisting qualified people to receive federal benefits brings in $5 to the state. Lastly, 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.

The solution proposed by the Task Force is to increase the Commonwealth’s investment in civil legal aid by $30 million over the next three years. Currently, the state invests $15 million annually in civil legal aid.

Such a move would likely save the state between $34 million and $51 million in economic benefits. While that alone should be enough to convince policymakers to make the investment, there is one more compelling reason to do so. The benefits of a fairer and more effective justice system for all of us, especially for those in need, are simply incalculable.

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.

Celebrating Pro Bono Month

By Lonnie Powers

Voluntary service to people in need is a deep tradition of the legal profession. Here in Massachusetts, it is clear that equal access to justice has come to depend on the pro bono services of attorneys.

Last week, the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, formed in April 2013 to assess civil legal needs in the state, released Investing in Justice: A Roadmap to Cost-Effective Funding of Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts. The Task Force’s report found that attorneys in Massachusetts donated 82,000 pro bono hours to four civil legal aid service providers in 2013. Worth $17.6 million, the contribution is greater even than the $13 million provided by the state to civil legal aid organizations that year. (State funding for civil legal aid was increased to $15 million for the current fiscal year.)

Pro bono services are a crucial contribution to the workings of our civil justice system, and are just one example of the generosity of members of the bar to our most vulnerable residents. Even so, it’s not enough to meet rising need for civil legal aid. Throughout October, the American Bar Association is celebrating Pro Bono Month to inspire attorneys to volunteer their services to those who need it most.

Indeed, the BBA’s Task Force report also documents that 30,000 low-income clients — or two-thirds of those who qualify for civil legal assistance — were denied services in 2013 simply because organizations did not have the resources to take their cases. The lack of services meant that many of those turned away were left to represent themselves — often losing their cases — or forced to drop their claims.

One of the recommendations of the Task Force is to encourage law firms to consider providing senior attorneys with space, overhead and support for pro bono activities. It also recommended the expansion of programs such as “Lawyer for the Day” at Boston Housing Court — since its inception 14 years ago, 12,000 attorneys have voluntarily assisted 15,000 people with issues related to eviction and code enforcement — to other areas of the state.

Though vital to our court system, pro bono services from attorneys cannot fill the gaps in justice that leave many poor people without legal representation. Such representation is much-needed when resolving conflicts related to the basic necessities of life such as housing, employment, classroom accommodations for our children with disabilities and family conflicts related to child support and custody, divorce and domestic violence. Pro bono service makes a difference, but we need more resources from the state if we are to achieve equal justice for all.

As we mark Pro Bono Month, we hope you’ll take the time to contact your state senator and representative and urge them to support increased funding for civil legal aid. Meanwhile, if you are an attorney, please consider pro bono service under the auspices of a legal aid organization. Every person deserves equal access to justice, regardless of income.

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.