As 50th Anniversary Approaches, Public Funding of Civil Legal Aid Remains Vital to Justice

By Lonnie Powers

Last year, Massachusetts resident and single mother of two Daniele Bien-Aime was fired from her job as a medical interpreter after requesting time off for treatment for breast cancer. With no income, Bien-Aime soon defaulted on her rent. So her landlord filed an eviction notice. Staff at the community health center where she was receiving medical care referred her to a local legal aid nonprofit. An attorney there helped Bien-Aime assert her right to accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Bien-Aime got her job back. Her legal aid attorney subsequently worked out an arrangement with Bien-Aime’s landlord, who dropped the eviction proceedings.

You can find tens of thousands of stories like this around the country. Civil legal aid services are life-saving for people like Bien-Aime who have nowhere else to turn when faced with critical civil legal matters, including eviction, illegal dismissal from employment, domestic violence, and child custody issues. And yet public awareness of civil legal aid is low. Surveys regularly find that most Americans erroneously believe that poor people have a right to free counsel in civil cases. But the landmark 1963 US Supreme Court ruling in Gideon, which found that everyone has a right to legal representation in certain matters, limits that right to criminal cases.

Unfortunately, with lack of public awareness comes lack of support for civil legal aid. And it’s a burgeoning crisis. A well-functioning judiciary and a strong civil legal aid system are vital for ensuring that the most vulnerable Americans have access to justice.

Here in Massachusetts, state funding for civil legal aid, when adjusted for inflation, currently sits around the level it was a decade ago. The story is even worse for non-state funding of civil legal aid. In Massachusetts and most other states, that primarily comes from the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA); since 2008 those funds have declined precipitously as banks have lowered their IOLTA interest rates. In fiscal year 2014 IOLTA funds are expected to be 85 percent less than what they were a little more than five years ago.

These declines in funding have significantly reduced the capacity to provide civil legal aid in Massachusetts. Agencies that receive funding from the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), the organization through which the Commonwealth funds civil legal aid, have 38 percent fewer attorneys now than they did in 2008, a decrease of 63 full time attorneys. Existing programs are simply overwhelmed by the need for civil legal assistance. And yet the ratio of civil legal aid attorneys to eligible residents continues to worsen: according to the Census Bureau, the number of residents of the Commonwealth eligible for civil legal aid has increased by 13 percent or 112,000 people over the last two years.

The irony is that civil legal aid substantially boosts the Commonwealth’s economy each year, bringing in tens of millions of federal dollars, improving the economic condition of low-income clients and other residents and saving the state millions in avoided benefits and social services costs. MLAC estimates that its grantees’ individual casework and leadership in systemic advocacy in FY12 resulted in at least $26,959,218 in new federal revenue coming into the Commonwealth over the course of just one year, with many of the benefits lasting several years. MLAC grantees won an additional $20,584,531 in first-year income and savings for clients and the Commonwealth, for a total of $47,543,749.

This story of shrinking civil legal aid resources despite the economic activity generated holds true in most other states.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of federal funding of civil legal aid with the passage, in 1964, of the Economic Opportunity Act, which launched the War on Poverty. Fifty years later, the need remains great.

Civil legal aid can assure fairness in our justice system for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. But the simple truth is that access to justice more often than not requires access to counsel. It’s an investment we must make if the four words that end the Pledge of Allegiance — “and justice for all” — are to have any real meaning.

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.