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How civil legal aid assists older adults

This post was first published on Huffington Post.

By Lonnie Powers

The president of the United States is a 71-year-old reality TV star. One of his fiercest critics is the acid-tongued Rep. Maxine Waters, age 79. At age 81, public radio host Diane Rehm married a 78-year-old. At a relatively youthful 68, rock god Bruce Springsteen’s solo acoustic show is one of the hottest tickets on Broadway, while celebrated fiction writer Amy Tan, 65, is earning acclaim for adeptly tackling the art of memoir with “Where the Past Begins.”

These influential older Americans are emblematic of the cultural shift that began in our country when the baby boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) reached retirement age in 2011—and will continue for decades to come. Census figures show that the number of U.S. residents ages 65 and over grew from 35 million in 2000 to 49.2 million in 2016. The Population Research Bureau says that between 2020 and 2030 the number of seniors will increase by 18 million; by 2060, close to one quarter of Americans will be 65 or older.

The graying of the U.S population affects all areas of our society—from the economy and the labor force to our health care system and federal safety net programs like Medicare and Social Security. A recent POLITICO story about a brewing crisis in the U.S. hospice care system, for example, sounded the alarm on the urgent need for the health care field to quickly adapt if we are to effectively meet the needs of our country’s rapidly ballooning and long-lived senior population.

“With baby boomers aging and likely to live with serious illness for several years, understanding how best to take care of the aged and the dying is becoming an ever more pressing issue in America—emotionally, morally, and financially,” writes POLITICO Health Editor Joanne Kenen. Reinforcing that point, geriatrics expert Joan Teno has said, “We need to address this very quickly. The tsunami of frail elderly people with complex multiple illnesses is coming.”

Indeed, not every older American enjoys the abundant resources of the likes of Bruce Springsteen or the health care and financial security provided by a Congressional retirement plan. Right now, about 6.4 million older Americans live in poverty—defined by the federal government as an annual income of $12,060 or less. While the poverty rate among the elderly has declined over time, senior care experts project that millions of seniors will struggle financially in the coming decades due to cuts to safety net programs, shrinking employee pension programs, longer life spans, rising health care costs, inadequate retirement savings and other demographic and lifestyle factors. Justice in Aging, a civil legal aid organization dedicated to elder issues, projects that by 2030, 72 million seniors will be living in poverty and that senior homelessness will increase by 33 percent by 2020.

Preventing a crisis of elder poverty and helping older adults live safe and fulfilling lives will require greater advocacy from and on behalf of seniors, creative policy making, and new community partnerships. We must also strengthen existing programs that have proven effective in helping vulnerable elders—Social Security, Medicare and Meals on Wheels—and, of course, civil legal aid.

Civil legal aid, which provides free legal assistance and representation to low-income people facing non-criminal legal issues, is a potent tool to assist vulnerable seniors in securing proper health care and housing, to protect them from physical abuse and financial exploitation, and to get access to other benefits and services to help keep them solvent.

In Massachusetts and around the country, many legal services organizations have units dedicated exclusively to addressing the legal needs of the elder population. For example, Greater Boston Legal Services’ (GBLS) Elder Abuse Prevention Project, in addition to providing direct services to elder clients, provides training for care providers, community members, and seniors to raise public awareness of the forms such abuse can take. GBLS is playing a role in assisting the increasing number of elders who are falling victim to abuse by opioid addicted family members, a side effect largely overlooked until recently.

The organization recently helped “Pauline,” a 77-year-old Chelsea woman, avoid eviction after her daughter’s unwanted presence in her apartment drew the attention of the woman’s landlord. The daughter had originally moved in with Pauline after GBLS helped the family qualify for a federal stipend that compensated the daughter for caring for Pauline. Unfortunately, the daughter took advantage of the situation, using the apartment for activities prohibited in the lease. Pauline made her daughter move out.

Pauline was injured shortly afterward, requiring hospitalization followed by a stay in a nursing home rehab unit. Unbeknownst to her, Pauline’s daughter had moved back into her apartment during this time, prompting the landlord to initiate an eviction. GBLS, however, negotiated an agreement that enabled Pauline to keep her apartment provided she received care from a different family member and her daughter stayed clear of the premises. GBLS also advocated on Pauline’s behalf to ensure she received proper follow-up care upon discharge from the nursing home. These arrangements enabled Pauline to spend the last two weeks of her life back in the home that she loved and fought so hard to keep.

MetroWest Legal Services’ (MWLS) Senior Citizen’s Legal Project assists elders in central Massachusetts with housing needs, health care directives, nursing home issues, domestic relations, and other issues. In one instance, they prevented Florynce, a senior living alone in Watertown, from becoming homeless after a $500 rent increase forced her to seek a new place to live. Before a MWLS attorney began advocating on Florynce’s behalf, her landlord was refusing to negotiate a lease extension to give Florynce time to obtain senior housing through the local housing authority. The attorney negotiated the lease extension and brought Florynce to the attention of the housing authority director, who approved a measure to give Florynce priority on the housing waiting list. A few weeks before her lease extension expired, an apartment opened up and Florynce made a smooth transition to her new home.

These are but two examples of the life-sustaining assistance that civil legal aid can provide to low-income seniors. As we face a future of assisting and caring for a disproportionately large population of senior Americans, we’ll need innovations in health care, housing, transportation and other infrastructure to adequately and safely meet their needs. But we must also continue critical existing services. Civil legal aid has long been an effective means of advocating for the needs of vulnerable seniors individually and systemically. Given all the looming challenges, now is an opportune time to strengthen and expand our country’s network of civil legal aid programs.

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

Free Civil Legal Services Available for Massachusetts Crime Victims

BOSTON (October 11, 2017)—The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) announces today that it has received a two-year, $8 million grant from the Office for Victim Assistance (MOVA) to increase access to civil legal services for victims of violent and economic crimes in Massachusetts.

Victims of crime are often left with significant legal needs beyond those addressed in the criminal justice system. Child custody, immigration, healthcare or access to stable housing are just some examples of the civil legal needs faced by many victims following a crime.

This funding will increase access to these services for the most vulnerable victims of child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, and elder abuse—as well as to victims of non-violent crimes like fraud, financial abuse, or theft. Services are free and accessible to children, elders, non-English speakers, and people with disabilities. Referrals are also made to other social service providers to meet each client’s individual and long-term safety needs.

“Victims of violent and non-violent crimes are often incredibly vulnerable and may face challenges that are not addressed as part of the criminal prosecution process,” Attorney General Maura Healey said. “This grant ensures that more victims will have access to the critical legal services they need and can seek the justice they deserve.”

“After being violently attacked by my husband in our home I found myself involved in multiple court situations beyond the criminal justice system,” said Danielle Sicard, MOVA Board member. “Four years past this life changing ordeal, I continue to find myself in need of legal assistance and services in both district and probate courts to battle my ex-husband’s continued attempts at abuse. As a survivor of domestic violence it thrills me to see the launch of this program and I know these services will be instrumental for victims as they navigate through a complex court system during some of the most stressful situations.”

Created in 1983, MLAC is the largest funding source for civil legal aid in Massachusetts, supporting 14 civil legal aid programs that provide legal information, advice, and representation to low-income individuals and families facing civil legal issues. Working in partnership with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), MLAC will disburse funds to regional and statewide civil legal aid programs to increase capacity to serve individual clients at the local level. The MOVA grant will also be used to increase the network’s capacity to coordinate services on a statewide basis.

“Successful criminal prosecution may bring justice to victims, but often additional civil legal assistance is required,” said Lonnie Powers, Executive Director of MLAC. “Victims of domestic violence, for instance, frequently need access to protective orders, assistance with child custody and support, divorce, and property distribution. Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, civil legal aid programs are forced to turn away thousands of eligible residents who seek services. This grant will help us begin to address funding shortages and serve more clients in need, and it is an important step forward in our effort to ensure equal justice for all people in Massachusetts.”

Georgia Katsoulomitis, Executive Director of MLRI, echoed that sentiment, saying, “We are proud to partner with the MOVA, MLAC, our fellow legal services programs, and advocates for domestic violence survivors and other victims of crime to launch this initiative. Through this grant, we will collaboratively create a coordinated system that will assist victims of crime across the state.” Katsoulomitis also highlighted the unique training that will be the foundation for services provided through the grant. “We will provide robust training to legal advocates on trauma-informed service delivery that is designed to address trauma while providing high quality civil legal assistance. This holistic approach recognizes that victims are not statistics or case numbers—they are people who have been often severely impacted in many aspects of their lives by the crimes perpetrated again them.”

In 2014, the Boston Bar Association’ released a report “Investing in Justice: A Roadmap to Cost-Effective Funding of Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts” which highlighted the importance of investing in civil legal aid services in the state. One of the report’s key findings demonstrated the economic benefits of legal aid: for every $1 invested by the state in in civil legal services, $2 to $5 is returned to the state and its residents.

“The BBA’s study demonstrated that providing civil legal aid to the vulnerable is not only the right thing to do but also provides the Commonwealth with a return on investment,” said BBA President Mark D. Smith, of Laredo & Smith. “This generous grant from MOVA will help expand access to justice for victims at a critical moment in their lives.”

“As a longtime supporter of MLAC and its efforts to increase access to legal aid, the Massachusetts Bar Association is thrilled that this valuable infusion of funding will directly help some of the most vulnerable members of our commonwealth,” said MBA Chief Legal Counsel Martin W. Healy. “This grant makes it possible for more crime victims to access important legal services and resources beyond the criminal justice system, without which they risk being further victimized.”

“Impacts of crime affect every aspect of a victim’s life which can require civil legal remedies to achieve long-term safety and stability,” said Liam Lowney, MOVA’s Executive Director. “This funding bolsters MLAC’s existing network of regional legal aid organizations to provide services to victims in or around their hometown. In addition to civil legal services, victims can also receive referrals to other area providers who can assist with other rehabilitation and recovery needs. We are thrilled to partner with MLAC and MLRI to provide these critical services to better serve crime victims throughout Massachusetts.”

Information on civil legal assistance funded by this grant and provided by MLAC, MLRI, and other programs around the state can be accessed at www.massclavc.org.

Funding for this program comes from the Victim of Crime Act (VOCA) Crime Victims Fund administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime. MOVA grants VOCA funding to government and community-based victim services throughout Massachusetts. To learn more please visit www.mass.gov/mova or call (617) 586-1340.

Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts: Securing Equal Justice for Low-Income Children and Youth

By John Carroll

Forty years ago, the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts (CLCM) opened its doors in Lynn with a mission to promote and secure equal justice and maximize opportunity for low-income children and youth throughout the Commonwealth. Since then the organization has had remarkable success in protecting this vulnerable demographic group through local advocacy and by advocating and litigating for systemic change.

For an example of their expert local advocacy, consider the difference the organization made in the lives of 20-year-old “Melissa” (a pseudonym used to protect her privacy), and her two younger siblings. Their father abandoned the family, but they were left without anyone when they lost their mother to cancer. Melissa’s wish was to care for her siblings and keep them all together. Given Melissa’s youth and her school and work commitments, her plans to care of her younger siblings were dubious. The foster care system loomed.

That is, until a CLCM attorney took charge. Against the odds, he helped Melissa get legal custody of her siblings. He then provided assistance so she could secure survivor benefits, health insurance, food stamps, fuel, utilities and housing. He taught her budgeting and financial management. The attorney also provided legal help to Melissa in housing court. Finally, the legal advocate sponsored small fundraising efforts to help Melissa acquire funds to keep the family afloat. Thanks to the commitment of this CLCM counsel, Melissa and her siblings have remained together and have done quite well.

Working more broadly, CLCM was influential in the reform of state and federal laws that mandated life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders. In 2007, the organization recruited a Fellow to investigate, research, and publish a definitive study on the sentencing of youth to life imprisonment without parole. At the time, only Massachusetts and Connecticut mandated that juveniles as young as 14 who were charged with first degree murder (even if only an accomplice, under the felony-murder rule) could be tried as an adult. If convicted, Massachusetts law required that such children be sentenced to life without parole. Through a report, “Until They Die a Natural Death,” published in 2009, CLCM began advocating for changes in this legislation, a goal that was ultimately realized at both the federal and state levels.

Aside from its headquarters in Lynn, CLCM has project offices in Boston and Chelsea and will re-open an office in Lawrence office in September 2017. The agency has nine attorneys, an AmeriCorps volunteer, and a panel of about 40 volunteer private attorneys. Jay McManus, CLCM’s executive director, is a public-spirited lawyer who, like his peers, is committed to helping vulnerable people.

Aside from working on juvenile justice reform, CLCM engages in an array of educational and systemic change efforts, including research, appellate and legislative advocacy, impact litigation, and committee and task force work. It produces informative, easy-to-read materials, such as “Quick Reference Guides” on Children’s Behavioral Health Initiatives (CBHI)-Mental Health Services, special education, school discipline and Child Requiring Assistance (CRA) matters—all documents regularly used by attorneys and advocates throughout Massachusetts. CLCM also publishes, on an annual basis, community resource manuals that give parents, attorneys and providers for most cities and towns in southern Essex county and Merrimack Valley a compendium of critical social and legal services for low-income children.

CLCM’s local advocacy is focused on individual legal representation of children in a range of substantive areas, including education, immigration, child welfare, mental health and juvenile justice. Its local advocacy service area encompasses Essex County and Greater Boston. CLCM provides legal representation to more than 400 clients per year; an additional 1,500 children receive limited legal assistance.

The agency also does close to 100 trainings per year across the Commonwealth, reaching 2,000 – 3,000 attorneys, providers and parents.

CLCM is funded by Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, the Boston Bar Foundation, and the United Way, as well as several private foundations, including Cummings, Clowes, Eastern Bank and HG Shaw, among others, along with individual and corporate donors. The good that this agency does is exponentially greater, many times over, than the resources it has at its disposal. CLCM punches well above its weight.

***

John Carroll is a 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.

Community Legal Aid: Fighting Poverty and Working for Justice for Over 50 Years

By John Carroll

When she sought help from Community Legal Aid (CLA), Brittany was a single, working mother from Central Massachusetts who put her children to bed each night on the floors of the homes of her family and friends. With no stable living arrangements and very little money, she had lost her sense of safety and security.

Prior to becoming homeless, Brittany (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) and her two young sons had been living in a mold-infested apartment with heat that didn’t go above 52 degrees. After she was hospitalized with pneumonia, she fell behind on the rent because she was unable to work. Her landlord took her to court and the family was forced to pack up and leave. Unable to find suitable housing, Brittany applied for emergency shelter but was denied.

CLA helped put Brittany and her children back on the road to stability and independence. Because she had fallen behind on her rent for legitimate medical reasons, her CLA attorney successfully argued that the state had wrongfully denied the emergency shelter for which she was eligible. Soon she and her children were safely placed in shelter and began the search for a permanent home without worrying where they’d wind up sleeping every night. Meanwhile, Brittany’s son was worried that he would have to change schools because their shelter was in a different school district. A CLA education attorney stepped in and worked with both towns to ensure Brittany’s son could continue to attend the school that he loved.

Helping low-income families and individuals escape homelessness is just one way CLA serves as a lifeline for thousands of clients each year. CLA provides legal assistance to eligible people in the most basic areas of need: homelessness prevention, employment, education, elder law, immigration, and family law, mostly for domestic violence survivors. CLA’s work is augmented by a panel of approximately 175 private attorneys who annually donate more than 2,700 hours of legal services to the organization.

With a service area that stretches from Worcester to Massachusetts’ western border, CLA serves all of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties. It has full-service offices in Worcester, Northampton, Pittsfield and Springfield, along with satellite offices in Fitchburg, Greenfield, Holyoke, North Adams, Southbridge and Milford. No other legal services program in Massachusetts serves such a broad swath of the state.

In addition to covering the largest geographical area of Massachusetts’ regional legal aid programs, CLA’s roots are among the oldest in the state. Most civil legal aid programs trace their birth to President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in 1964, which led to the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity and other anti-poverty programs. Having been established in 1951 as the Legal Aid Society of Worcester by a group of attorneys from the Worcester County Bar Association, CLA’s origins precede even those programs.

As it has over the last six-plus decades, CLA will continue to grow and adapt to meet the needs of the most vulnerable residents of Central and Western Massachusetts, ensuring they have access to justice and the dignity that all people deserve, regardless of their ability to pay for legal help.

When her case was resolved, Brittany declared her attorney “a miracle worker.”

“You work so hard,” she said, “and you have gotten my family so far with your kindness alone.”

At CLA, it’s all in a day’s work.

***

John Carroll is a 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.

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.

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.