Northeast Legal Aid Finds New Ways to Serve Low-Income Clients

By John Carroll

In the early days of President Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s, lawyers in the Office of Economic Opportunity, which oversaw much of the initiative, funded programs that filed lawsuits seeking to address systemic economic problems. For example, a 1970 class action lawsuit (Goldberg v. Kelly) made the practice of terminating public assistance benefits without first providing applicants with a fair hearing illegal.

These early anti-poverty advocates realized that that the legal problems of lower-income citizens were symptoms of poverty rather than its cause. In 1974, Congress passed the Legal Services Corporation Act and the following year, the Legal Services Corporation took over management of anti-poverty measures rooted in legal services. In 1996, Congress amended federal law to prohibit any organizations funded by the Legal Services Corporation from engaging in class action lawsuits. As a result, the focus of civil legal aid programs shifted from system change to assisting individuals in crisis.

Northeast Legal Aid (NLA) has programs rooted in both approaches to reducing poverty through legal advocacy. By the usual metrics employed to measure today’s civil legal aid programs, NLA looks typical. It serves 56 cities and towns in Essex and north Middlesex counties. Several of the areas have a disproportionate number of persons eligible for free legal services(annual income at or below 125% of the federal poverty level, or $31,375 for a family of four). NLA’s areas of practice are also typical of a legal aid program: housing, family law, foreclosure prevention, elder and veterans issues, consumer debt, and public benefits.

A closer look, however, reveals that NLA hews to the original legal aid philosophy of attempting to address systemic economic problems that result in legal problems. One such effort, the Community Development and Entrepreneurship Practice, was launched in the fall of 2014 by NLA attorney Jared Nicholson. The idea is to help low-income entrepreneurs and small business owners in Lynn and Lawrence with free legal advice before legal problems arise, thus avoiding common legal pitfalls and business-related problems. As NLA Executive Director George Weber described it: “This program is forward looking—it is about how to avoid legal problems, not just how to get out of them.”

Nicholson, the creator, worked three years as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company in New York and Mexico City. There, he noticed how important legal aid was for businesses. As a Harvard law student, Nicholson applied for a grant from the Skadden Foundation, the charitable arm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP, which provides funding for graduating students who want to devote part of their professional lives to helping the poor, elderly, people with disabilities and others who usually do not have access to quality legal services. NLA agreed to host the grant. The Community Development and Entrepreneurship Practice quickly became known as one of the few in the region exclusively dedicated to providing free legal advice to lower-income entrepreneurs and small business owners, helping them to address issues common to launching a business: incorporation, regulatory compliance, licensing, permits, leases and employment law.

Nicholson helped many who would have failed not because they were unwilling to work hard of getting a business off the ground, but because they do not understand the complex rules and regulations related to starting and running a business. Exhibit A is Anthony Seaforth, a Lynn resident who ran into difficulty navigating the regulatory system when seeking to obtain nonprofit status for his fledgling No Ceilings Youth Group, an organization dedicated to helping local student athletes succeed academically. The nonprofit designation better positioned No Ceilings to seek funding and work directly in Lynn schools.

Thanks to Nicholson’s help, Seaforth’s organization is thriving—and high school students in Lynn are benefiting. A Daily Item article about the program noted that No Ceilings is “truly touching the students who need it most.” The article reports:

“There really isn’t anyone in the city who can do what [Seaforth] does,” said Keoni Gaskin, a rising senior at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute “Our coaches are great role models for example, but there is something about Tony that makes him relatable in all situations.”

Nicholson has since moved on to other work, but two lawyers in the program—Sumbul Siddiqui and Carson Wheet—have picked up where he left off, expanding the program to more cities and towns in an effort to assist more aspiring entrepreneurs. NLA’s Community Development Practice continues to be a great program that can make a difference, providing impartial legal advice to those willing to open businesses, create jobs and thereby strengthen their community.

NLA came into being in 2014 with the merger of Neighborhood Legal Services and Merrimack Valley Legal Services, two organizations with histories that stretch back to 1967, when a small group of socially conscious lawyers and paralegals gathered to provide civil legal aid to low-income and elderly people in the Northeastern Massachusetts. Given the increased client demand and the growing scarcity of resources since those early days, NLA should be commended for effectively adapting to meet the needs of the communities it seeks to serve.

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.

Ministering To Puerto Rico’s Pain: Civil Legal Aid Lawyers Assisting Those Seeking Mass. Refuge

This post first appeared on WGBH News.

By Jacquelynne Bowman and Lonnie Powers

Five months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the situation on the island remains dire, and states throughout the nation have welcomed Puerto Rican refugees—who are U.S. citizens—to the mainland. Here in Massachusetts, several thousand Puerto Ricans have sought refuge with friends and relatives, mostly in SpringfieldNew BedfordWorcester, and Boston. Massachusetts public schools have already enrolled approximately 2,000 students from the hurricane-ravaged island. In his state of the Commonwealth address this week, Governor Charlie Baker said that state agencies are working to streamline services for thousands of Puerto Rican residents as they settle in Massachusetts. And he has previously said that Puerto Rican refugees would be in need of “financial assistance, housing, health care, jobs or reunification services.”

These new residents will also require civil legal assistance. Civil legal aid attorneys have long played a critical role in helping people recover from natural disasters. They accelerate the recovery process for people with limited financial resources by helping them resolve housing issues, replace important legal identification papers, make insurance claims, apply for FEMA benefits, combat contractor scams that often proliferate in the aftermath of widespread property destruction, and deal with other unforeseen legal matters that surface in chaotic times. Even child custody issues can arise if a parent is forced to seek safety far from their storm-damaged residence.

That’s why the Louisiana Civil Justice Center (LCJC), an organization founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to provide disaster legal aid to its victims, sprang into action last September after Hurricane Irma lashed the Virgin Islands, followed shortly thereafter by Hurricane Maria’s wrath. In partnership with FEMA and the American Bar Association, LCJC deployed its disaster legal hotline as a central intake point for hurricane victims to receive legal information and referrals to appropriate agencies and legal advocates.

“The devastation in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico is likely to be a Katrina-level event,” said LCJC Executive Director Jonathan Rhodes in announcing the plan. “Of the many lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, we know the value of legal assistance as survivors rebuild homes and communities.”

This burgeoning need was very much on the minds of attorneys lobbying the state legislature a few weeks ago for increased investment in civil legal aid. Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court addressed over 650 attorneys at the State House before they fanned out to meet with lawmakers, and reminded them of the increased burden on civil legal aid programs that will be assisting numerous Hurricane Maria refugees.

As civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts rise to meet the needs of Hurricane Maria refugees, they do so on top of existing needs among some of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents. Civil legal aid programs help people avoid homelessness and unemployment, gain access to health care and veterans’ services, receive a quality education, and escape domestic violence. Currently, lack of funding forces civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts to turn away approximately 65 percent of eligible residents who seek services—nearly 45,000 people each year. To be eligible for civil legal aid, applicants must have incomes at or below 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, which is $31,375 a year for a family of four.

The work of legal aid programs does not just benefit clients. The return on the state’s investment in civil legal assistance is high. In fiscal year 2016, new revenue for legal aid clients and cost savings to the Commonwealth from legal aid work totaled an estimated $49.2 million, of which $15.9 million was in the form of new federal revenue.

But that’s not why we should invest more in civil legal aid. As Gants also reminded us on Thursday, the best way to judge a society is by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Those who are eligible for civil legal aid, among them Hurricane Maria refugees, are among our most vulnerable neighbors and we should be giving them all the help they need.

Lonnie Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. Jacquelynne Bowman is the Executive Director of Greater Boston Legal Services.

Tech sector and legal community create digital resources to meet civil legal needs

This post was first published by South End News.

By Lonnie Powers

We rely on mobile apps and computer software to manage our health, pay bills, find the college of our dreams and do our taxes. We surf the web for how-to articles and YouTube videos for tips and tutorials on everything from oil changes to helping a cat deliver her kittens. The digital age has made performing a range of time-consuming, complex, expensive, or simply annoying tasks infinitely easier and cheaper-including costs associated with paying for professional expertise. So how about do-it-yourself legal aid? Fortunately, there’s an app for that, too-in fact, there are many.

Decades of inadequate state and federal funding for civil legal aid programs, which provide free lawyers and legal help in noncriminal matters (e.g. divorce, protection from domestic violence, denial of veterans benefits) to people who are struggling to make ends meet, mean that civil legal aid organizations around the country funded by state and local governments, foundations and private contributions, as well as the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC), are unable to address the needs of most of those who seek their help. In Massachusetts, for example, 65% of the eligible residents who seek help from civil legal aid have to be turned away.

In the face of this persistent shortage of funding, and in an effort to assist a greater number of people in need, the tech sector and the legal community are continually developing new digital resources that can effectively help people help themselves with their legal issues.

“Technology allows us to push out information to the public that was previously accessible only to lawyers,” LSC President James J. Sandman has said. “It can provide user-friendly form-preparation assistance for the unrepresented, much like TurboTax helps people prepare tax forms. It can stretch limited resources for legal aid providers, allowing them to automate processes that lawyers used to handle. It can enable legal aid offices to offer some assistance to people they otherwise would have to turn away with nothing.”

Indeed, the tech company Upsolve, which began in Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab, built a software program that helps users complete Chapter 7 bankruptcy paperwork on their own. Executive Director Jonathan Petts, a former corporate bankruptcy lawyer, developed the program out of concern for the millions of Americans who remain stuck in poverty because they can’t afford to pay a lawyer to help them file for bankruptcy and a desire to automate the time-consuming data entry associated with the process. To date, the company has erased roughly $1.5 million in debt for low-income Americans, helping them build a more financially stable future. It has also cut the amount of time attorneys must spend on bankruptcy cases from six-to-10 hours to two.

Similarly, walks New York City renters through the process of documenting, lodging, and mediating housing violation complaints as well as helping them prepare materials for housing court. The app also allows legal aid lawyers, other advocates and community organizers to do targeted outreach, gather evidence and track useful housing data. JustFix co-founder Georges Clement says his product aims to level the playing field in housing courtbetween New York City property owners, 90 percent of whom have lawyers, and tenants, 90 percent of whom are unrepresented.

In California, the Self Help Assistance and Referral Program, or SHARP, is a self-help center that assists more than 30,000 people annually in dealing with family law issues, guardianships, evictions, small claims, name changes, restraining orders and other matters. SHARP offers classes via videoconference in addition to fielding consumer questions via email and phone, enabling people in far-flung corners of the state to access services remotely.

“The knowledge shared with me was directly responsible for my success during trial,” said one user.

“[SHARP] directly reduces the emotional and financial burden of legal proceedings for individuals, their families and the community,” said another.

Since 2000, LSC’s Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program has awarded $57 million in grants for hundreds of innovative, effective projects around the country that use technology to help meet the civil legal needs of Americans who are just scraping by. Among them is an initiative at the Worcester, Massachusetts-based Community Legal Aid (CLA) to streamline the organization’s intake process by creating a user-friendly online application in both English and Spanish that is integrated with its case management system.

Whether through do-it-yourself technology or time-saving digital tools like CLA’s online intake portal, expanding the use of technology to help civil legal aid serve more clients is welcome and necessary. To be sure, technology is no substitute for a skilled attorney or advocate when dealing with complicated civil legal issues affecting housing, shelter, and family safety. But it is an important tool with vast possibilities as we continue to work to provide equal justice for the most vulnerable among us-all of them.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

National Budget Proposals Would Harm the Poor; Pullback in Local Support Will Make Things Worse

This post was first published on Huffington Post.

By Lonnie Powers

Across the country, recent headlines about the impact of the Trump administration’s proposed federal budget cuts to social safety net programs are dire and worrisome. “Analysis: Congregations can’t make up for proposed federal budget cuts,” read the header on a story in the national Catholic magazine Crux. “Mean federal budget proposal hurts children,” the Tennessean declared at the top of a story about how the cuts could set back Tennessee’s steady improvement in child well-being. In the Columbus Dispatch, it was “Federal budget cutters take aim at food stamps” over a story noting that two-thirds of Ohio food stamp recipients are children, elderly or adults with disabilities. And in The Hill, US mayors warned that the proposed $6 billion cut in funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development could result in a public health crisis for residents of the country’s public housing.

Naturally, these proposed budget cuts to our most basic social services have people with low incomes and anti-poverty advocates on edge, especially those of us who provide civil legal aid. That’s because civil legal aid—free legal advice or representation for poor people facing non-criminal legal issues—is often the very last line of defense for people who are already struggling to pay rent, put food on the table, and meet other basic needs.

Complicating matters is a squeeze on local funding for civil legal aid. The budget just approved by the Massachusetts legislature’s conference committee would fund civil legal aid at $18 million in fiscal year 2018—the same amount as last fiscal year. This amount falls far short of the increase requested by MLAC and eliminates the $2 million increases approved in the House and Senate Budgets, which both included $20 million in funding for civil legal aid.

When a low-income family faces eviction after an unlawful foreclosure on their home, civil legal aid is often the only service that stands between them and homelessness. The same goes for an elderly woman with a limited income facing a steep rent increasewhose landlord refuses to negotiate a lease extension to give her time to secure affordable housing. Ditto for the family that falls on hard times after a father’s catastrophic illness, becoming homeless and facing harassment from creditors.

So there is no doubt that if Trump’s cuts go through, the demand for civil legal aid will only increase as low-income people are made to get by with fewer resources, which are already quite meager to being with. Unfortunately, our civil legal aid system is already so chronically underfunded that 86 percent of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans over the past year received either inadequate assistance or none at all, according to a new report from the Legal Services Corporation, the quasi-federal agency that administers civil legal aid funding. Here in Massachusetts, more than 60 percent of people who qualify for services are turned away because civil legal aid programs lack the funding to help them.

That’s not the end of the story. The Trump administration has also proposed completely cutting off federal funding for civil legal aid. While that seems unlikely, the U.S. House subcommittee that appropriates money to the Department of Justice just released a budget proposal that proposes cutting civil legal aid funding by 24 percent—still a crippling blow that would result in even more people being denied access to equal justice under the law.

On the bright side, some local governments are taking small, but meaningful, measures to close the justice gap. In February, New York City became the first city in the country to guarantee that low-income people facing eviction or other housing issues will have legal representation in housing court. Philadelphia is moving in the same direction. Here in Massachusetts, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is working with state legislators to pass a billthat would guarantee legal representation for all tenants facing eviction, regardless of their ability to pay

Given the ominous signals from Washington, D.C., we must shore up our defenses at home. The first step in this process is for the final state budget to be approved with level funding for civil legal aid.

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

Community Legal Services and Counseling Center: A Hub for Justice and Healing

By John Carroll

In the words of Executive Director Mojdeh Rohani, the aim of Community Legal Services and Counseling Center (CLSACC) is simply “to respect and uphold human dignity.” It does this by providing free civil legal aid and affordable psychological counseling to low-income people so that they may meet their most basic needs for employment, housing, health and safety.

CLSACC’s unique interdisciplinary service model addresses clients’ legal issues and mental health needs because they often go hand in hand. A woman escaping intimate partner violence, for instance, may need legal assistance to obtain a protective order against her abuser. She may also need counseling to help her recover from the trauma she has suffered, so that she can find or maintain employment and a safe place to live, and generally stabilize her life. CLSACC’s legal program staff, when needed, utilize in-house and volunteer mental health professionals for case management, supportive counseling, forensic evaluations, and/or for consultation to work effectively with their clients and to achieve the best legal outcome for them.

Since its founding nearly 50 years ago, CLSACC has helped tens of thousands of low-income individuals and families facing non-criminal legal matters. Last year, the organization served 1,500 individuals and families.

CLSACC has grown significantly in recent years, doubling its staff from nine to 21 in 2017. The biggest growth has been to programs assisting refugees and immigrants, which prompted the addition of immigration attorneys and clinicians with expertise in treating clients who have experienced torture and/or trauma.

The Immigration Program, begun in 1985, was expanded in 2008 and again in 2014. In 2015 CLSACC established the Center for Global Human Rights and Resilience to more accurately reflect the nature of the agency’s work with refugees and immigrants. In addition to helping the hundreds of local residents who walk through the door, CLSACC assists asylum seekers statewide (with most living in greater Boston). Nearly 50 percent of asylum seekers are torture survivors from more than 40 countries in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America, including those escaping Syria’s civil war, the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and state-sanctioned extreme homophobia in Uganda.

Recently, one of the Counseling Program’s doctoral students, Twyla Wolfe, established a pilot micro-lending project aimed at helping these newcomers reestablish their lives in the U.S. Now directed by Clinical Volunteer Jordan Shaughnessy, the project provides material financial support and case management services to refugee and immigrant clients for up to 12 months. Clients receive a loan of $50 per month, empowering them to make private and independent purchasing decisions regarding their basic needs and to access community resources. They are expected to repay the loan once they have legal status and can work legally in the U.S. As one client says, “You’re helping me now and I promise to help you and this program one day.”

Who, exactly, does the helping at CLSACC? Aside from paid staff, pro-bono lawyers, counseling professionals and other volunteers (students, paralegals, translators) generously donated more than 14,000 hours of services last year, valued at well over a half-million dollars.

CLSACC’s annual budget includes funding from the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which provides approximately 12 percent ($125,000) of its annual operating expenses, with the remaining 88 percent coming from grants, contracts, foundations and individual donors.

Established in 1968 by Dr. Joseph Brenner, a psychiatrist at M.I.T., to provide free medical care to people unable to access existing medical services, the organization was originally known as Cambridgeport Medical Clinic. In June 1970, recognizing the additional unmet needs of their patients, Dr. Brenner and his colleagues launched the Cambridgeport Problem Center (CPC), which saw teams comprised of volunteer legal and mental health professionals and laypeople assist patients in finding ways to solve problems and make better life choices. Medical services were suspended in 1973 and CPC eventually grew into Community Legal Services and Counseling Center, following the clinic’s model of using volunteer professionals to provide services to the community’s most vulnerable residents.

CLSACC’s leadership reflects the interdisciplinary nature of its work. Rohani earned a master’s in social work from Boston University and has worked with survivors of trauma, torture, gender-based violence and human trafficking for 17 years. Deputy Director John Froio previously worked as CLSACC’s Assistant Legal Director and Housing and Disability Attorney.

CLSACC’s has been headquartered in Central Square since the late 1970s, in tightly packed space donated by the City of Cambridge with additional space rented from the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee. Recently, the Board of Directors approved the lease of a larger professional office space, located within blocks of the Lechmere T stop and the Middlesex Probate and Family Court, beginning July 1. The new location will allow the organization to better accommodate the organization’s expanding staff and volunteer corps. Most importantly, it will provide a more comfortable setting for CLSACC’s clients and their families.


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.