MLAC applauds $41M for civil legal aid in FY23 Final Budget

$6 million increase will address heightened need for legal services due to COVID-19

BOSTON, July 28, 2022 – Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law the FY23 Budget of the Commonwealth, including $41 million to fund civil legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, line item 0321-1600. That is a $6 million increase over FY22, and the amount requested by MLAC to fund civil legal aid organizations across the state.

“We want to express our deepest gratitude to Governor Baker and the legislature for their continued commitment to increasing access to justice through civil legal aid funding,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of MLAC. “Though we look toward recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still thousands of low-income residents across the Commonwealth facing serious non-criminal legal problems that threaten their health, safety, and financial stability. For these residents, access to civil legal aid is essential to helping them preserve their housing, income, benefits, and education.”

People with an income at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level—$34,688 for a family of four in 2022—are eligible for civil legal aid.

Parker also thanked the members of the House and Senate for their support for this increase, noting that the legislature has continually demonstrated a deep commitment to expanding access to justice for their constituents and other residents across the Commonwealth.

Parker recognized the ongoing civil legal aid advocacy of the Equal Justice Coalition, including the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association, managing partners of many of the state’s largest law firms, corporate in-house counsel, law schools, and advocates with social services organizations across the Commonwealth.

MLAC urges Governor Baker to approve Conference Committee FY23 Budget

Governor Baker has 10 days to sign or veto budget

BOSTON, July 20, 2022 – The FY23 Budget Conference Committee released its FY23 Budget Report on July 17 that includes $41 million for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, line item 0321-1600, which is the amount requested by MLAC to fund civil legal aid organizations across the state. Governor Baker has 10 days following the release of the Conference Committee Budget to sign or veto portions of the final version.  

“We are enormously grateful that the House of Representatives and the Senate included $41 million in the FY23 Budget, a $6 million increase for civil legal aid. We urge Governor Baker to approve this MLAC funding when he signs the budget,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of MLAC. “The $41 million for civil legal aid is what MLAC requested and is supported by the House and Senate. This increase will go a long way toward ensuring that more low-income residents have access to legal information, advice, and representation on civil matters as they face continuing hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Parker noted that the areas of unemployment compensation, housing, income supports and education saw a sharp increase in demand for legal services during the pandemic. People with an income at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty line—$34,688 for a family of four in 2022—are eligible for this civil legal aid.

Parker thanked the six-person Conference Committee, as well as House and Senate leadership, for their efforts to increase access to justice. “Civil legal aid is an essential service that protects the lives and livelihoods of so many in our Commonwealth. With an additional $6 million in FY23, legal aid organizations will be able to improve their organizational capacity to respond to emerging legal needs of our residents and upgrade necessary technology for clients and staff. We are now counting on Governor Baker to support this increase when he signs the FY23 Budget.”

Parker recognized the Equal Justice Coalition for its ongoing advocacy for civil legal aid, including the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association, managing partners of many of the state’s largest law firms, corporate in-house counsel, law schools, and advocates with social services organizations across the Commonwealth.

New report proposes a different way forward for incarcerated women in Massachusetts

On Monday, Prisoners’ Legal Services’ Women’s Incarceration Conditions and Reentry Project released a new report detailing the traumatic experiences of incarcerated women in Massachusetts and the urgent need to remedy the harm that women face in the carceral system. PLS attorney Sarah Nawab is the primary author of the report, A Different Way Forward: Stories from Incarcerated Women in Massachusetts and Recommendations.

The research is based on interviews with 22 women, either currently or formerly incarcerated in prisons and jails across the state. Of the women interviewed, the vast majority — 19 women — said they had either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or sexual violence while in custody.

“I think sexual misconduct happens with some regularity, and we have been unable to represent women in a brutality lawsuit like we do for many other people,” said Lizz Matos, PLS executive director, who was quoted in a WBUR article about the report. “And so this report was a response to that problem of not being able to shine a light on an issue and to show, through personal accounts, that this is real and it happens. And it needs a state response.”

Read more at PLS, WBUR, and WGBH.

Jury orders construction company to pay $650,000 to immigrant worker in retaliation case

The Boston Globe reported on the verdict of a case involving an injured worker, represented by Greater Boston Legal Services attorney Audrey Richardson. A federal jury in Boston on Tuesday ruled that a construction company retaliated against the worker by reporting him to immigration officials in an effort to have him deported after he was seriously injured on the job and awarded the man $650,000 in damages.

José Martin Paz Flores had broken his leg after falling off a ladder at work in 2017 and was recovering from surgery when his boss at Tara Construction told him to come to the office because he had some money for him, according to testimony during the week-long trial. But minutes after Paz picked up an envelope containing $500, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested him for living in the country illegally, as his 2-year-old son looked on.

Audrey Richardson, the lawyer for GBLS who represents Paz, said the verdict “made crystal clear that employers who think that they can take advantage of a worker’s undocumented immigration status to undermine their ability to exercise their basic workplace rights, in this case reporting an injury and getting medical care, will face serious consequences.”

Read more in The Boston Globe.

Tragedies fuel child welfare bill, pitched as attempt to improve system

Child welfare advocates, including Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Staff Attorney Susan Elsen and Retired Juvenile Court Judge Jay Blitzman, interim director of the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, scrutinized portions of an omnibus reform bill that in part seeks to rework the advising structure for the state’s Office of the Child Advocate while granting the office more power to intervene in some court cases — proposed legislative language one former judge said creates legal questions. The bill is pinned to high profile cases of child neglect in Massachusetts.

Some child welfare advocacy groups pushed back on the idea, saying the Office of the Child Advocate needs to have access to a wide range of expertise. Elsen said the office cannot oversee the welfare and safety of children in the state all by itself.

“Even if we agree that the composition should be adjusted so it doesn’t have as many executive branch members so as to ensure that the OCA has independence from the executive branch, the OCA does need an advisory committee to consult with, report to, and be accountable to,” Elsen told lawmakers.

Blitzman said Massachusetts has a “history of reacting to tragic cases with sometimes ineffective policy changes.” Blitzman said he and the legislative committee share the same concerns about improving the child welfare system. But he raised questions in his testimony about “how the bill might or might not achieve its goals.” 

Read more in the June 7 articles at MassLive, CommonWealth, and The Eagle Tribune.

State commission takes years to resolve discrimination cases

Tom Murphy, supervising attorney at the Disability Law Center, was quoted in a May 30 WBUR article about a backlog of cases at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which has worsened during the pandemic.

The backlog of old cases under investigation for more than 18 months has climbed more than five-fold since 2019, the agency’s own data shows, reaching 1,400 cases today. And many cases take much, much longer.

The MCAD took 17 years before last year dismissing a retaliation complaint by a fired electrical grid worker. A gender discrimination case against the Massachusetts Port Authority lasted 15 years before it was withdrawn in 2021. And records show that a dozen current cases have been pending for more than a decade.

Some advocates also fear the delays could deter many victims from coming forward at all, missing the chance to catch violations and hold institutions accountable.

“People are just going to give up,” said Murphy, supervising attorney with the Boston-based DLC. And Murphy worried that could encourage people in power to just ignore the rules designed to stop discrimination.

Read more on WBUR.

SafeRent Solutions accused of illegally discriminating against Black and Hispanic rental applicants

Greater Boston Legal Services, the National Consumer Law Center, and law firm Cohen Milstein filed a federal lawsuit on May 25 against SafeRent Solutions, LLC alleging that the national tenant screening provider has been violating the Fair Housing Act and related state laws for years. SafeRent, formerly known as CoreLogic Rental Property Solutions, provides tenant screening services that disproportionately give low scores to Black and Hispanic rental applicants who use federally funded housing vouchers to pay the vast majority of their rent, causing them to be denied housing.  The lawsuit alleges that SafeRent’s algorithm has a disparate impact based on race and source of income, in violation of federal and state laws.

“As stated in the complaint, while SafeRent considers applicants’ credit history, including credit-related information, including non-tenancy debts, and eviction history in calculating SafeRent Scores,” said Todd Kaplan, senior attorney at GBLS, “SafeRent’s algorithm does not consider the financial benefits of housing vouchers in assigning SafeRent Scores. On average over 73% of the monthly rental payment is paid through these vouchers.”

“Racial disparities in credit history and credit scores not only reflect historical racial disparities in wealth, but also perpetuate wealth inequalities through reduced financial opportunities and fewer financial safety nets, which hinder a consumer’s ability to accumulate present or intergenerational wealth through homeownership or other financial investments,” said Ariel Nelson, staff attorney at NCLC.

Read more at NCLC or on Inman, a real estate news source.

MLAC Commends Senate Approval of Additional $1M Increase for Civil Legal Aid

With amendment, total appropriation for MLAC rises to $41M

BOSTON, May 26, 2022 – Yesterday, the Massachusetts Senate approved an amendment to increase civil legal aid funding an additional $1 million for Fiscal Year 2023, for a total increase of $6 million. This brings the total annual funding included in the Senate budget to $41 million for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, line item 0321-1600.

“On behalf of MLAC and the civil legal aid organizations it funds, I would like to express my gratitude to Senate President Karen Spilka and Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues for their leadership in providing this much-needed increase,” said Lynne Parker, MLAC executive director. “We also thank Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem and Senate Judiciary Chair James Eldridge for their ongoing leadership and support of critical funding for civil legal aid and for championing the amendment adding $1 million in funding for civil legal aid, and the 22 other senators who co-sponsored it.”

“By approving this budget amendment, the Senate has recognized the heightened need for civil legal aid across the Commonwealth due to the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Legal aid attorneys provide vital services to low-income people, assisting with serious civil legal issues such as unemployment compensation, housing, income supports and education,” Parker said. “While the pandemic has widened existing inequities that low-income people face, civil legal aid organizations have rapidly innovated to address the rise in cases. It is important that organizations have additional resources to continue addressing COVID-19’s lasting impacts.”

In FY21, MLAC-funded civil legal aid organizations assisted 92,000 Massachusetts residents. Due to recent funding increases, civil legal aid organizations have reduced the percentage of eligible people turned away to 57 percent, down from 64 percent five years ago.

“Increasing access to civil legal aid is a public good, and we all must advocate for a more expansive vision of legal aid,” Majority Leader Creem said.

“I am very proud of what the Legislature has done over the past few years,” Chair Eldridge said. “Low-income people are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, housing insecurity, inflation and other threats to stability that often require civil legal assistance. I’m extremely proud of the legal aid agencies that have stepped up.”

MLAC Backs Senate Budget Amendment to Increase Civil Legal Aid Funding

BOSTON, May 10, 2022 – Massachusetts Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem and Senate Judiciary Chair James Eldridge have filed an amendment to increase civil legal aid funding by $1 million, for total funding of $41 million in the Senate budget.

Today, the Senate Ways and Means Committee presented its Fiscal Year 2023 budget, including $40 million to fund civil legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, line item 0321-1600. While this amount represents a $5 million increase over FY22, it is not the $41 million recommended by MLAC.

“Civil legal aid is an integral part of the Commonwealth’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, and we are grateful to Senate President Karen Spilka and Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues for their leadership in providing this funding,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of MLAC. “With the heightened demand for legal services in mind, as a result of the ongoing pandemic and its disproportionate impact on low-income people, we urge senators to support the amendment sponsored by Majority Leader Cynthia Creem and Judiciary Chair James Eldridge, which would add an additional $1 million in funding and help more people.” People with an income at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty line —$34,688 per year for a family of four—are eligible for civil legal aid.

Parker said that civil legal aid cases are expected to rise by nearly 20 percent by the end of FY22, compared to last year. “Massachusetts legal aid organizations are facing a financial and workforce strain as they are seeing increased caseloads, especially in the areas of unemployment insurance, housing, consumer and finance, immigration, and education. Strengthening organizations’ capacity will allow them to assist more low-income residents in accessing their most basic needs. With increased funding, organizations will be able to hire more attorneys and critical staff, raise attorney salaries to similar levels as other public sector attorney jobs, and upgrade technology to better meet the needs of clients and staff,” Parker said.

Parker recognized the Equal Justice Coalition for its ongoing advocacy for civil legal aid, including the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association, managing partners of many of the state’s largest law firms, corporate in-house counsel, law schools, and advocates with social services organizations across the Commonwealth.

Report says DCF needs to incorporate family input into policies

The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute released a report entitled Family Voices: Insights about prevention services from families and youth directly affected by the Massachusetts Child Welfare system, which examines the state’s child welfare system and provides recommendations for improving the system and services provided to families. The report was covered in a CommonWealth Magazine article as well as in a legislative briefing hosted by MLRI and State Representative Adrian Madaro on May 9.

The report looks at the state’s child welfare system through the eyes of the families caught up in it. The authors conducted in-depth interviews with 14 parents and youth and met three times with representatives of Family Matters First, a group of over 100 parents with Department of Children and Families (DCF) involvement. For families, DCF is known not as an agency that provides helpful resources but as one that takes children away.

“Families want service and help without DCF involvement,” said report author Susan Elsen, the child welfare advocate at MLRI.

Elsen said the gap between the mission of DCF – to keep children safely at home with their families whenever possible – and how it is perceived by the families it serves shows the need to bring families into the agency’s policy and planning efforts. “We hope to put the voices of people with lived experience out in the public arena with respect to planning services to keep children safely with their families, to really show how useful and profound their insights are into what’s going to make services effective for keeping children safely with their families,” Elsen said. 

Read more in CommonWealth Magazine. Download the full report here.