MLRI’s Georgia Katsoulomitis discusses legal aid’s COVID-19 mobilization on WGBH

Massachusetts Law Reform Institute’s Georgia Katsoulomitis shares with WGBH how legal aid organizations in Massachusetts have mobilized to protect low-income residents from “economic devastation” during the pandemic. Listen Here (Interview starts at 30:55).

What Boston renters need to know during the coronavirus pandemic

As the novel coronavirus continues to upend life in the Boston area, a worry looms among renters in the region: What happens on and after April 1?

For many tenants, April 1 is the next date that rent is due; but, if people are out of work or have lost other sources of income as a result of the pandemic, they may not be able to pay rent. Other Boston-area residents who were planning on moving now confront uncertainty over whether it’s safe or feasible to move to a new apartment at all.

Below are answers to some key questions as the outbreak unfolds, including ones surrounding what comes after April 1….

Can my landlord evict me if I contract COVID-19?
No. “Attempting to evict someone because they were infected with or thought to be infected with COVID-19, or another medical condition, would be a violation of existing fair housing laws,” said Andrea M. Park, housing and homelessness attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute… Read more in Curbed.

Domestic, Sexual Violence Survivors at Greater Risk in Crisis

MARCH 19, 2020…..Most lawmaking business has been paused as the Legislature turns its attention to the coronavirus outbreak that has shut down most of the state, but advocates reminded lawmakers Thursday not to forget bills to help sexual assault and domestic violence survivors — many of whom face heightened risks during the emergency conditions — and to reprioritize the legislation as soon as possible…

All of the proposals discussed, they said, have become even more important during the spread of COVID-19 because survivors are more vulnerable to abuse when they are out of work or may need to stay in an unsafe situation amidst widespread closures….Read more from the State House News Service.

Disability community will fight any attempt to discriminate over scarce medical resources

Letter to the Editor, Boston Globe

The March 17 editorial “Hospitals on the front lines as pandemic takes hold” highlights the importance of preparedness in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The editorial includes many sensible suggestions, such as canceling or postponing elective surgeries and repurposing hospital beds to expand ICU capacity. However, there is another crucial issue that requires immediate attention: ensuring nondiscrimination in the increasingly likely event that needs exceed scarce medical resources.

Recent proposals to ration access to ventilators and other scarce resources using criteria that disadvantage those with underlying conditions are a source of serious concern to people with disabilities and our allies. Should hospitals prioritize those with the least resource-intensive needs or exclude from access to life-sustaining care those with lower survival probabilities, they would be engaging in discrimination.

The disability community will aggressively push back against any attempt to ration care against the disabled, through advocacy and, where necessary, legal action. Hospitals and other providers should be aware: Even during a pandemic, any attempt to discriminate against the disabled will expose them to protest, liability, and the rightful condemnation of the public at large.

Colin Killick
Executive director
Disability Policy Consortium

Marlene Sallo
Executive director
Disability Law Center

3 Ways Automation Can Enhance Access To Justice

The delivery of legal services to low income consumers is being transformed by automation technology such as TurboTax-like forms for people facing eviction, and that transformation only shows signs of picking up steam as researchers continue to mine its potential for legal aid.

Three lawyers at the forefront of the change spoke last week at the American Bar Association’s TechShow in Chicago about how they’re using automation and AI to help solve the access to justice crisis in the United States.

Quinten Steenhuis, a senior housing attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, highlighted a piece of technology he developed that is similar to TurboTax that is aimed at helping people facing eviction get the legal help they need.

The online form, called Massachusetts Defense for Eviction, is an intake form of sorts that queries users on what eviction-related legal issues they’re facing and gathers relevant information about the facts of their case. The questions are tailored to the user based on their responses to previous questions.

The ultimate result, Steenhuis said, is that the user gets an idea of what their legal needs are and when they connect with a legal aid provider like him there is a baseline of useful information that allows the interaction to take up less time, which lets him spend more one-on-one time with each client and fit more clients into his schedule on a given day.

“People are very hungry for this service,” Steenhuis said. “They are used to this way of interacting to solve a problem. They like that there’s something they can do on their phone.”… Read more from Law 360.

Partnerships urged at Worcester forum on battling poverty

WORCESTER — The Worcester Community Action Council held its annual Poverty Forum, “Driving Solutions in Partnership,” Thursday at the Hanover Theatre, with a call to action from Marybeth Campbell, executive director.

“Many of us in this room are nonprofits across health, human services, housing, transportation, child care. And we probably share a lot of the same clients,” Campbell said. “How do we identify who those shared clients are and figure how do we triage and help support those clients together beyond our one-off programs and services but really look at that continuum,” said Campbell, who served as moderator for the event.

Gina Plata-Nino, staff attorney, at the Central West Justice Center of Community Legal Aid, Luis Pedraja, president of Quinsigamond Community College; Laurie Ross, associate dean of the faculty and director of Clark University’s Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning; and Ken Bates, president and CEO Open Sky Community Services, participated in a panel discussion on poverty.

Society teaches people in poverty that “being poor is the worst thing they could be in America, because you must have done something wrong,” Plata-Nino said. “And I see that from my clients constantly … Wait a minute. You are working two jobs. It’s not your fault.”… Read more in the Worcester Telegram.

Prisoners’ Legal Services files suit in alleged wrongful death case

A young mother limps toward a desk in the booking area of a Massachusetts police department one evening in late September 2018, holding her chest and repeatedly saying she is in pain. Madelyn Linsenmeir, 30, had been arrested for allegedly violating probation on a drug-related offense in another state.

The scene marks the start of a series of alleged missteps by the Springfield Police Department, the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department and others accused of denying proper medical care to Linsenmeir after she asked for it, according to the suit filed by the ACLU of Massachusetts, Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts and Goulston & Storrs… Read more from CNN.

Cambodian refugee deported 2 years ago returns to US

BOSTON — A Cambodian refugee who says he was wrongly deported nearly two years ago was reunited with his family in Massachusetts on Wednesday, becoming the fourth such refugee — and first on the East Coast — to be allowed back into the country since the Trump administration stepped up deportations of Southeast Asians.

Thy Chea arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport after successfully petitioning to get his green card reinstated and suing the federal government to allow him to return to the country.

The 50-year-old Lowell resident was welcomed by his family and supporters, who cheered, held signs and handed him flower bouquets as they greeted him at the baggage claim.

Chea quickly scooped up his young daughter and one-year-old son, who was born after he was deported and had never met him in person.

“I am so grateful to be with my family. It’s been 18 months,” he said tearfully. “This is my kid and it’s the first time I’m holding him and meeting him.”

Chea’s lawyers argued that his criminal charges weren’t deportable offenses and that he should have been allowed to remain in the country. The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed, reopening his immigration case and restoring his lawful permanent resident status last year.

Greater Boston Legal Services, which is representing Chea, then sued the federal government in December, saying immigration officials were still “unlawfully” refusing to facilitate Chea’s return.

“It’s been a long fight to get Thy back,” said Bethany Li, his lawyer. “We really hope this is the start of a lot more people coming back to our communities.” Read more from Boston 7 News.

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants Calls for Increased Civil Legal Aid at Walk to the Hill

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants joined hundreds of attorneys, law students and others last week in calling for increased state funding for civil legal aid to vulnerable low income Massachusetts residents in need at the annual Walk to the Hill at the Massachusetts State House.

“The good news is that the legislature in the past few years has been great to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation; between fiscal years 2018 and 2020 the legislature has substantially increased the amount appropriated to MLAC,” Chief Justice Gants said. “We are blessed with a legislature that knows the importance of civil legal aid to this Commonwealth and has acted on that knowledge. Our legislators ‘get it’…But that good news is also the bad news, because it means that legal services still turn away more than half of the eligible persons who come to them seeking legal assistance.”

Organized by the Equal Justice Coalition, the event called for increased funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the largest funding source for civil legal aid organizations in the state, by $5 million in the Fiscal Year 2021 state budget, for a total appropriation of $29 million… Read more in The Chelsea Record.

Chief Justice Gants, hundreds of attorneys call for increased civil legal aid funding at Walk to the Hill

Advocates request $29 million to expand access to representation in FY21

Kenda Cluff, a client of South Coastal Counties Legal Services, speaks at Walk to the Hill. Photo Credit: Elbert John

Tenants are fighting evictions in the midst of a housing crisis. Veterans are battling war-time injuries and legal issues. And a growing senior population is facing poverty and serious legal problems. Those are just some of the reasons the Commonwealth should provide more funding for civil legal aid, said Chief Justice Ralph Gants at the 21st annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid at the Massachusetts State House on January 30.

Chief Justice Ralph Gants

Chief Justice Ralph Gants speaks at Walk to the Hill. Photo credit: Jeffrey Thiebauth

Chief Justice Gants spoke in support of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation’s request of $29 million for civil legal aid in the Commonwealth’s FY21 budget—an increase of $5 million compared to current funding levels. The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation is the largest funder of civil legal aid organizations in Massachusetts.

Approximately 700 people—attorneys from nearly 40 firms and companies, law students (including 95 from the University of Massachusetts School of Law), legal aid staff, and advocates—gathered for the annual lobby day.

Kenda Cluff, a mother of four young children and a client of South Coastal Counties Legal Services, described how legal aid lawyers helped her end an abusive marriage, gain sole custody of her children, and prevail in a lawsuit filed by her former in-laws seeking her share of the divorce settlement.

Kenda Cluff

Kenda Cluff shares how civil legal aid helped her and her children. Photo credit: Elbert John

“I know there are many people out there who are desperate to get out of awful situations like mine,” Cluff said. “The work these legal aid lawyers do is so important. It has a generational effect. My children’s lives are completely changed because of the help we received from legal aid. Without legal aid, my three daughters would think abuse is acceptable. My son would think it is okay to be abandoned or to abandon. I’ve given them new opportunity to move into a different direction in life. These types of changes have a ripple effect in this world.”

Unfortunately, insufficient funding for legal aid organizations forces them to turn away the majority of eligible people who seek help, Chief Justice Gants said. He urged the attorneys and law students gathered in the Hall of Flags to advocate on their behalf: “You speak not for yourselves, but for all those who have neither money nor power, but who might have the law on their side, if only they knew how to use it.”

Gants also emphasized the economic benefits that civil legal aid brings to Massachusetts and its residents: “Remember that a dollar devoted to legal aid is not merely an investment in justice; it has also been proven to be a sound economic investment that returns roughly between two and five dollars to the Commonwealth for each dollar spent.”

Civil legal aid organizations have received funding increases from the legislature in recent years, and speakers noted the continued need for that support. “More money for legal aid means more qualified people who get a lawyer,” said Louis Tompros, chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, a collaboration of MLAC, the Boston Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Bar Association.

UMass Law students

More than 90 students of the University of Massachusetts School of Law advocated for legal aid at the state house. Photo credit: Elbert John

Legal aid makes a “long-term difference in the lives of low-income residents in the Commonwealth,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. “One of the greatest strengths of legal aid advocates is their expertise, their capacity to confront and overcome the challenges that face our clients – life-threatening housing conditions, homelessness, domestic violence, deportation, loss of employment, elder abuse and neglect.”

Parker added, “Legal aid is vital to the health of our communities, the health of the judicial system, and the state’s commitment to access to justice.”

Christine Netski, president of the Boston Bar Association, said a growing number of immigrants are overwhelmed by the prospect of facing the court system alone. She recounted the story of Daniela, a young woman from Brazil who had become pregnant with twins as the result of a sexual assault. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began removal proceedings, but with the help of MetroWest Legal Services, she was able to avoid deportation and obtain a U visa. She now has steady employment and is working on her high school diploma.

“Immigration issues like those faced by Daniela are especially prevalent today,” said Netski, noting that the MLAC-funded Greater Boston Immigration Defense Fund is “one of the great legal services programs working to increase access to the justice system for members of our immigrant communities.”

Massachusetts Bar Association President John J. Morrissey lauded the pro bono efforts of lawyers across the state to provide free representation to unrepresented civil litigants. “But efforts of our volunteers alone cannot reach the goal of providing vital legal services to people in need,” he said. “We need more funding for civil legal aid programs so that legal aid attorneys don’t have to turn away more than half of the people that come to them.”

In closing, Cluff, the client of South Coastal Counties Legal Services, said, “I have no idea how much the help from the lawyers at South Coastal Counties would have cost. But it is priceless to me. It is my hope that sharing my story in front of so many unfamiliar faces will help a mother out there who is not willing to take another turn in an awful cycle of abuse.”