Make a Difference by Reaching Out

By Lonnie Powers

Fifty years ago this summer, thousands of college students from around the country — and from all backgrounds — volunteered to travel to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, a campaign that sought to register African Americans to vote. Three of those student volunteers were murdered (the 1988 film Mississippi Burning is loosely based on their story) for their advocacy on behalf of disenfranchised African Americans. Those three — and the thousands who survived Freedom Summer — changed the world because they chose to “reach down and touch the pain,” as folk singer Iris Dement puts it in her 2004 classic “He Reached Down.”

Every year, South Coastal Counties Legal Services in Massachusetts helps to place approximately 25 AmeriCorps Legal Fellows in civil legal aid programs across the state. Some are recent college graduates, but a considerable number, especially in recent years, are law school graduates and licensed attorneys. The latest class of AmericCorps Legal Fellows just completed their service.

Like the Freedom Summer volunteers, each of these AmericCorps fellows chose to “touch the pain” in the lives of those who need legal assistance. That choice and that experience has changed their lives — and will continue to do so — in myriad ways. The fellows now know something of what it is like to be poor in the richest country in the world. They know something about what it’s like to have a son or daughter who is denied a decent education because others made assumptions about the child’s abilities based on the color of the child’s skin or the first language of the parents. They know that some families seek shelter in their cars on freezing nights in February because it is their best option to stay safe. Though many Fellows were deeply moved and saddened by these injustices, there is no question that their lives have been changed because they have “touched the pain.”

Increasingly, fewer and fewer people “touch the pain” of those who are different from themselves, and our society is the worse for it. The opposition to sheltering unaccompanied children fleeing to the US from violence-plagued Central American countries is one recent example. A recent Boston Globe poll about a proposed plan to house migrant children in Massachusetts found that while 50 percent of voters support housing the children on a short term basis, 43 percent believed that the children should be deported following judicial hearings. Just 39 percent said that the children should be allowed to stay when the legal process concluded.

The decision to make the effort to reach out to those with different backgrounds and life experiences, while difficult at times, brings great benefits. Writing in the Washington Post earlier in July, Gregory Rodriguez, the founder and publisher of Zócalo Public Square, observed that “diversity makes us smarter:”

Diversity, however, requires second thoughts. When the consensus is challenged in a homogenous place by the presence of new people, things get interesting. The familiar signs and symbols that undergird our implicit understanding of the world can change in meaning. The presence of conflicting worldviews causes confusion, uncertainty, and alienation for holdovers and newcomers alike. These feelings can either cause people to draw back into themselves–or force them to articulate and justify themselves to those who don’t share their view of the world. Or both.

I have no doubt the AmeriCorps Legal Fellows will continue to engage with those who share a different worldview and, most important, will continue to “reach out and touch the pain.” In doing so, they are slowly chipping away at inequality and expanding justice for all.

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.

Closing the ‘Justice Gap’

By Lonnie Powers

Demand for civil legal aid continues to outstrip supply. Among attorneys and others in the field, this is known as the “justice gap.”

It’s clear that we will never close this gap unless our federal and state funders dramatically increase their support. In the meantime, we must also find ways to expand access to information that can help those in need. While there is no one way to do this, self-help legal centers and smarter use of technology are surely part of the solution.

In 1996, the Legal Services Corporation, an independent entity created by Congress in 1974 to support civil legal aid organizations around the country, issued a report touting the benefits of technology to increase the capacity of civil legal aid organizations. With its enthusiastic descriptions of self-help kiosks (“The Minnesota Twins sell tickets via kiosks which allow the potential buyer to ‘see’ what seats are available on a given date, and what the view is like from those seats, reportedly prompting many ticket upgrades”), the 18-year old report is quite dated. But its basic message still holds true today: by using technology and self-help centers, the civil legal aid profession can “reshape delivery of legal services” and “assist millions of additional clients at very low cost.”

Today, self-help centers and technology have radically reshaped the delivery of civil legal aid. There are now online sources of legal assistance in each of the 50 states that provide information on civil legal cases related to basic human needs. In Alaska, that state’s court system has set up an online Family Law Self-Help Center with videos and articles providing information about child support and custody, divorce, and domestic violence. The Texas Legal Services Center runs TexasLawHelp.org, which provides free online information related to housing and employment discrimination, domestic violence, and other critically important civil legal matters.

In some instances, such as Massachusetts’ MassLegalServices.org, these online self-help centers assist civil legal aid advocates and attorneys in “more easily, accurately, and efficiently [creating] legal documents for their clients,” as Vincent Morris, director of the pioneering Arkansas Legal Services Partnership, wrote last year for the Mississippi Law Journal. (For a comprehensive overview of this aspect of the legal landscape, Morris’s “Navigating Justice: Self-Help Resources, Access to Justice, and Whose Job Is It Anyway?” is a must read, and it argues convincingly for the inclusion and expansion of “innovative self-help resources” to “ensure that unrepresented civil litigants have meaningful access to justice.”)

A number of states including Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, and others have combined the self-help aspect of online research with live help in the form of instant messaging from legal experts, who are known as “navigators.” (This model has been employed by the health care industry in the form of “patient navigators”―people who are not health care providers, but who are nonetheless familiar with the health care system and assist new patients in navigating among specialists and primary care providers.)

Yet another method of expanding access to civil legal aid information is through self-help centers located in court houses and staffed by attorneys. A district judge had nothing but praise for the Civil Law-Self-Help Center set up on the bottom floor of Las Vegas Justice Court: When litigants are better prepared, “the judge can make intelligent decisions,” District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez told the Las Vegas Sun. “The traffic through the center is much better than I anticipated, and I’m impressed with how the staff has handled it.”

In Massachusetts, “Lawyer of the Day” programs in housing courts around the state provide advice and assistance — but not representation — to income eligible tenants and landlords. Courts in Massachusetts are also in the process of opening two pilot self-help centers, one in the western part of the state in Greenfield, and a second in Boston.

Nothing can replace the value brought by a skilled attorney or advocate to civil legal issues affecting basic human needs such as housing, shelter, and family safety. But expanding access to information through the use of technology and self-help centers to meet rising demand must be a part of the solution to closing the gap.

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.

As Demand Rises, Civil Legal Aid Innovates to Expand Access to Resources

By Lonnie Powers

Demand for civil legal aid continues to outstrip supply. Among attorneys and others in the field, this is known as the “justice gap.”

It’s clear that we will never close this gap unless our federal and state funders dramatically increase their support. In the meantime, we must also find ways to expand access to information that can help those in need. While there is no one way to do this, self-help legal centers and smarter use of technology are surely part of the solution.

In 1996, the Legal Services Corporation, an independent entity created by Congress in 1974 to support civil legal aid organizations around the country, issued a report touting the benefits of technology to increase the capacity of civil legal aid organizations. With its enthusiastic descriptions of self-help kiosks (“The Minnesota Twins sell tickets via kiosks which allow the potential buyer to ‘see’ what seats are available on a given date, and what the view is like from those seats, reportedly prompting many ticket upgrades”), the 18-year old report is quite dated. But its basic message still holds true today: by using technology and self-help centers, the civil legal aid profession can “reshape delivery of legal services” and “assist millions of additional clients at very low cost.”

Today, self-help centers and technology have radically reshaped the delivery of civil legal aid. There are now online sources of legal assistance in each of the 50 states that provide information on civil legal cases related to basic human needs. In Alaska, that state’s court system has set up an online Family Law Self-Help Center with videos and articles providing information about child support and custody, divorce, and domestic violence. The Texas Legal Services Center runs TexasLawHelp.org, which provides free online information related to housing and employment discrimination, domestic violence, and other critically important civil legal matters.

In some instances, such as Massachusetts’ MassLegalServices.org, these online self-help centers assist civil legal aid advocates and attorneys in “more easily, accurately, and efficiently [creating] legal documents for their clients,” as Vincent Morris, director of the pioneering Arkansas Legal Services Partnership, wrote last year for the Mississippi Law Journal. (For a comprehensive overview of this aspect of the legal landscape, Morris’s “Navigating Justice: Self-Help Resources, Access To Justice, and Whose Job Is It Anyway?” is a must read, and it argues convincingly for the inclusion and expansion of “innovative self-help resources” to “ensure that unrepresented civil litigants have meaningful access to justice.”)

A number of states including Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, and others have combined the self-help aspect of online research with live help in the form of instant messaging from legal experts, who are known as “navigators.” (This model has been employed by the health care industry in the form of “patient navigators”―people who are not health care providers, but who are nonetheless familiar with the health care system and assist new patients in navigating among specialists and primary care providers.)

Yet another method of expanding access to civil legal aid information is through self-help centers located in court houses and staffed by attorneys. A district judge had nothing but praise for the Civil Law-Self-Help Center set up on the bottom floor of Las Vegas Justice Court: When litigants are better prepared, “the judge can make intelligent decisions,” District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez told the Las Vegas Sun. “The traffic through the center is much better than I anticipated, and I’m impressed with how the staff has handled it.”

In Massachusetts, “Lawyer of the Day” programs in housing courts around the state provide advice and assistance — but not representation — to income eligible tenants and landlords. Courts in Massachusetts are also in the process of opening two pilot self-help centers, one in the western part of the state in Greenfield, and a second in Boston.

Nothing can replace the value brought by a skilled attorney or advocate to civil legal issues affecting basic human needs such as housing, shelter, and family safety. But expanding access to information through the use of technology and self-help centers to meet rising demand must be a part of the solution to closing the gap.

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.

Language Access Projects Crucial to Making Legal Services Accessible

By Lonnie Powers

People who do not speak English, or who have limited proficiency with English, can face many challenges when trying to access government services or pursue justice through the courts. Federal law and regulations have established standards to shield limited English proficient (LEP) persons from illegal discrimination. But the reality is that such people are often left to advocate for themselves in individual courts and local governmental offices, and due to limited English proficiency, they are often unable to do so effectively.

It’s not at all uncommon for our civil legal aid advocates to work with recent immigrants and refugees who have next to no proficiency in English and who are dealing with complex issues, such as eviction from housing or denial of health care benefits. More often than not, our clients have been instructed by court clerks and government officials to bring a family member or friend who can translate for them. In some instances, they will even try to have an LEP person’s child translate sensitive information.

All of which, of course, is in clear violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which specifies that no person in the United States may be excluded on the basis of national origin “from participating in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The American Bar Association’s 2012 “Standards for Language Access in Courts” specifies that courts should provide notice of the availability of interpretation services, translated signage and qualified interpreters for LEP litigants, who are often recent immigrants or refugees. Courts are also expected to have written forms available in translation, and to have court judges and staff trained on language accessibility. Compliance with these standards is not uniform, and many LEP litigants still do not have equal access to justice in courts throughout the country. Federally funded programs frequently fail to meet these standards, and LEP persons often receive agency notices in English or a language other than their preferred language. LEP persons are often not informed of their right to interpreter services or are outright denied access to an interpreter. The failure to comply with federal language access standards has resulted in lawsuits and investigations by the Department of Justice in several states, including Rhode Island and New Jersey.

Here in Massachusetts, the state’s Office for Refugee and Immigrants (ORI) published a report in 2009 identifying the most commonly cited service gaps for LEP persons at the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), which included a lack of interpretation during intakes and a dearth of translated written material. As part of compliance with the ORI recommendations, DTA drafted and published a Language Access Plan.

In response to these legal access issues, civil legal aid advocates in many states have established coalitions with other social justice organizations to advocate for LEP persons. In Washington state, the Coalition for Language Access recently launched their “Tools with Health” community education program, through which they disseminated consumer “Know Your Rights” pamphlets and “I Speak” cards.

The Washington D.C. Language Access Coalition and Legal Service N.Y.C. have each published data reports on language access barriers that persist in their local communities. New York houses several language access initiatives, including the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition and the Language Access Project of Legal Services N.Y.C. California is home to the Long Beach Language Access Coalition. These coalitions hold meetings, organize conferences, and spearhead community education initiatives to help empower LEP persons with knowledge of their rights.

In Massachusetts, the state’s Language Access Coalition organized “Building Bridges through Language Access Advocacy and Collaboration,” a 2014 summit that brought together advocates from legal services, community-based organizations, and civil rights organizations who explored ways to improve compliance with language access legal obligations in their communities. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) created a Language Access Fellowship in 2013 through which an advocate placed at an MLAC-funded organization could strategize full-time on ways to mobilize language advocacy initiatives across the state.

When considering the vast array of need in accessing justice, the ability to receive and respond to critical information in a timely manner cannot be overstated. Language access projects play a vital role in making this happen.

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 Aid Is a Potential Tool in Helping Victims of Partner Violence

By Lonnie Powers

When domestic violence makes national news, it is more often than not when a high profile celebrity is involved, as when Chris Brown was charged with assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009. Here in Massachusetts, much attention is being paid currently to the case of Jared Remy, the son of Red Sox commentator, Jerry Remy, who is currently awaiting trial on charges that he murdered his girlfriend Jennifer Martel.

These tragic stories often spark public debate and — in some instances — legislative action on how to better aid victims and prevent future incidences of domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a complex public health problem that defies an easy solution. When it comes to domestic violence victims who are living in poverty, however, access to legal services is proven to prevent further violence and save lives.

Research shows that the availability of civil legal services significantly reduces the likelihood that someone will again be the victim of intimate partner violence. In 2000, two 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. By analyzing data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, as well as the U.S. Census, they concluded that access to civil legal services was a primary reason for the decline. Services provided by emergency shelters, counselors and hotlines are vital during a crisis. But access to protective orders, assistance with child custody and support, divorce and property distribution and domestic violence-related legal disputes around immigration, housing and public benefits help over the long-term as these services “appear to actually present women with real, long-term alternatives to their relationships,” the researchers concluded in their report, which was published in 2003 in Contemporary Economic Policy.

Additionally, between 1994 and 2000, the period during which incidences 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).

It is true that the court system can be scary and overwhelming for anyone, much less someone who comes to it in a vulnerable position to begin with. Without strong legal advocacy and other professional support for people in abusive relationships, their abusers can easily persuade or intimidate victims out of pursuing legal action.

A majority of the victims in the study were living in poverty. This fact once again reinforces the dire need for civil legal aid, which provides legal representation, advice, and information to low-income people with non-criminal legal problems such as domestic violence, child custody, or employment issues.

If we as a society are serious about preventing domestic violence, the expansion of civil legal aid for domestic violence victims must be in the policy mix. It makes no sense to ignore a tool proven to help individuals and families break free over the long-term from the cycle of violence and return to living safe, healthy and productive lives.

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.

When Talking About Civil Legal Aid, Don’t Forget Its ROI

By Lonnie Powers

The War on Poverty was launched 50 years ago, with the passage of the federal Economic Opportunity Act in 1964. That landmark legislation included provisions to strengthen civil legal aid services for low-income people through federal funding, because President Lyndon Johnson and Congress recognized that fulfilling our nation’s promise of equal justice for all was not just a constitutional obligation and a moral imperative, it was also an economic issue.

Public debate about whether or not we’ve won the war is well underway, but it’s not a question I’ll attempt to answer in this piece. There is one thing, however, of which I’m certain: for the good of our society and our economy, we must continue to ensure that low-income individuals and families can access legal information, advice and representation. In many cases, it’s what saves them from spiraling further downward into poverty’s grip, at great expense to them and to our Commonwealth.

Unlike criminal defendants, low-income people with civil legal problems — child custody, domestic violence, employment, elder issues, housing, health care, or the inability to access government benefits — aren’t eligible for court-appointed attorneys. They rely on the availability of limited legal aid programs, often the only way in which basic human needs for health, safety and housing can be met.

Securing equal justice for our most vulnerable residents not only helps them remain stable and independent, it also substantially benefits the state financially in at least two significant ways. First, it saves the state millions in avoided benefits and social services. To cite just one area of substantial savings, let’s look at homelessness, which persisted at high rates in Fiscal Year 2013 because of the economic decline and foreclosure crisis.

In June 2013, the state’s Division of Housing Stabilization reported supporting an average of 3,315 families each day in emergency shelters, hotels or motels. Another 6000 were placed for two years in apartments with HomeBASE rental assistance. By November, the Boston Globe was reporting that the number in shelters, hotels and motels had risen to 4,200, with half of those, about 2,100, living in hotels or motels.

In FY 13, assistance from legal aid organizations, including representation in court, resulted in eviction being prevented or delayed for 1,587 households, allowing low-income families and individuals to stay in their homes or giving them the time to find alternative housing. Without this assistance many of these clients would have entered the state’s costly emergency shelter system.

A 2012 report by the Boston Bar Association Task Force on the Civil Right to Counsel found that more than 15 percent of families evicted from their homes could be expected to enter the family shelter system. Given that the average cost of housing individuals and families in our shelter system runs between more than $10,000 to more than $25,000 annually, legal aid assistance that helped people avoid eviction and foreclosure proceedings saved the Commonwealth roughly $4.5 million in FY 13.

Preventing homelessness saves not only shelter costs, but also costs to the state of health care and other social services on which homeless people must rely. The most recent Economic Benefits report from the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) found that the successful legal aid advocacy done on behalf of the aforementioned 1,587 households saved the state another estimated $2 million dollars in health care costs.

Second, legal aid advocacy also brings in significant federal revenue. MLAC estimates that legal aid organizations’ individual casework and leadership in systemic advocacy in FY13 resulted in at least $10,203,278 in new federal revenue. The bulk of these funds — more than $7.1 million — resulted from MLAC’s Disability Benefits Project (DBP), which helps disabled Bay Staters in their efforts to qualify for or retain federal disability protections and benefits. Many DBP clients receive state-funded Emergency Aid to Elders Disabled and Children (EAEDC) and are removed from those programs when they qualify for federal benefits, thus creating additional savings for the Commonwealth. The federal government also reimburses the state for EAEDC payments made while eligibility for federal benefits was being determined. In FY 2013 for instance, the federal government reimbursed the Department of Transitional Assistance $489,759 for EAEDC payments.

These are just two examples of the ways in which legal aid organizations benefit not just their clients, but the state as a whole. All told, MLAC estimates that the services rendered in FY 2013 by local legal aid organizations can be credited with bringing in an estimated $27.9 million in new revenue and cost savings to the Commonwealth and its low-income residents. Besides preventing homelessness and securing federal disability benefits, the savings came from a range of programs and services, among them advocacy for domestic violence victims, elders needing access to health care, parents seeking child support, workers seeking fair wages and residents in need of unemployment assistance.

Funding for civil legal assistance for low-income people strengthens our society by meeting America’s promise of equal justice under the law. It also is an excellent fiscal investment for the Commonwealth, especially in these trying economic times. Regardless of what one thinks about the War on Poverty, strengthening legal aid services was a worthy endeavor, and we should continue to support the organizations doing this life-saving work.

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.

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.