Hundreds of Lawyers Rally for Increased Civil Legal Aid Funding at Walk to the Hill

Equal Justice Coalition chair Louis Tompros addresses the Walk to the Hill participants.

By Gray Christie
Attorneys, law students, and bar association leaders packed the Massachusetts State House Hall of Flags January 24 for the 20th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. Led by Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, more than 650 people assembled at the Equal Justice Coalition’s annual lobby day to advocate for a state budget increase of $5 million for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts.

“Civil legal aid is not only a moral obligation; it is a sound investment,” said Chief Justice Gants, noting the money invested in legal aid yields savings for the Commonwealth by preventing homelessness, saving medical costs, and recouping federal benefits.

Chief Justice Ralph Gants

Ralph Gants, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, delivers his remarks at Walk to the Hill

Fred Connelly, a teacher and construction worker from Quincy, told the story of how lawyers with Greater Boston Legal Services helped his family avoid homelessness when they were facing eviction from the home they have lived in for nearly 40 years. Injured and out of work, he couldn’t afford a lawyer to help him keep the house he built himself. Without the help of GBLS, “I know for a fact I would not have my house back today,” he said.

In his budget filed the day before the walk, Gov. Charlie Baker included level funding for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts – an appropriation of $21 million dollars. While appreciative of the governor’s continued support, Walk to the Hill speakers stressed that more funds are needed to ensure that the civil justice system is accessible to all. Last year, two thirds of eligible applicants for legal aid were turned away.

Fred Connelly

Fred Connelly explains how Greater Boston Legal Services helped him keep his house

Lawyers from nearly 40 law firms and in house-legal departments and more than 30 bar associations gathered for the event, in addition to lawyers and staff from legal aid organizations, and students and faculty from New England Law, Boston University School of Law, Northeastern University School of Law, and two busloads of students from the University of Massachusetts School of Law. Chief Justice Gants urged them: “Ask your legislators if they believe that we as a Commonwealth can succeed when so many are struggling and being left behind … Discuss the families who will need legal help in the coming fiscal year because their lives have been upended by opiate addiction, by the threat of deportation, by eviction, by elder abuse, by wage theft, or by domestic violence.”

Louis Tompros, chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, invoked the Massachusetts justice system’s rich history: “It was here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that we developed the rule of law, it was here that we recognized its incredible power, and it was here that we recognized that equal access to the legal system—regardless of ability to pay—is a necessary condition to a free and just society … If we are serious about ‘liberty and justice for all,’ it is up to us to make it a reality.”

Lynne Parker, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, noted that while the economy is improving for some, there is still a serious need for legal assistance: “Increases in housing costs often drive struggling tenants farther from their jobs. A job layoff, a medical emergency, the denial of hard-earned benefits, or the loss of health insurance can often be catastrophic to individuals and families who are already struggling to make ends meet. Access to civil legal aid can make all the difference.”

Lynne Parker

Lynne Parker, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, speaks at Walk to the Hill

Jonathan Albano, president of the Boston Bar Association (BBA), stressed both the proven economic benefits of investing in legal aid and the current inability to meet the state’s full need. He cited a BBA report which showed that civil legal aid “produces a positive return on investment—in housing cases, in taking on intimate-partner violence, and in securing rightful federal benefits, to name just a few vital areas.” He also stressed that “roughly 45,000 eligible Massachusetts residents are turned away each year. Plus, given recent developments at the federal level, including changes to immigration policies and cuts to antipoverty programs, the need for state legal aid will likely continue to grow.”

President of the Massachusetts Bar Association Christopher Kenney argued that the shortfall in legal aid funding amounts to a crisis: “More than 66 percent of eligible people in Massachusetts are forced to face life-changing legal matters alone, making it less likely they’ll succeed and more likely that they’ll require other state resources and add to the state’s fiscal burden.”

Created in 1999 in a collaboration between the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the Boston Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Equal Justice Coalition leads an annual campaign to increase appropriations for legal aid in Massachusetts.

Antihunger groups tell Governor Baker to craft ‘disaster plan’ for emergency food requests amid shutdown

Leading antihunger groups in Massachusetts on Wednesday called for an end to the partial federal government shutdown and urged Governor Charlie Baker to prepare a “disaster plan” for a likely spike in emergency food requests if the stalemate grinds on past February…The statement was put out by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Greater Boston Food Bank, Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Merrimack Valley Food Bank, and Project Bread. Read more in The Boston Globe.

Advocacy that matters – MLAC board member honored

This article originally appeared in the June 11, 2018 issues of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program recently honored Mala Rafik, managing partner of Rosenfeld & Rafik in Boston, for her legal counsel and advocacy for the health and disability rights of the organization’s patients. Rafik received the Dr. Jim O’Connell Award at BHCHP’s May 21 Medicine That Matters gala at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel. Each year, BHCHP cares for more than 11,000 patients on the streets, at 45 clinics, and in medical respite facilities.

Lonnie Powers’ remarks at Massachusetts Bar Foundation Annual Meeting

Lonnie Powers, the founding Executive Director of MLAC, is the 2018 recipient of the Massachusetts Bar Foundation’s Great Friend of Justice Award

March 7, 2018

“Thank you for recognizing me as a Great Friend of Justice.  It is a wonderful honor that causes me to remember all the Great Friends of Justice that I have been privileged to know since coming to Massachusetts – Friends who have led me, taught me and shown me what it means to live a life dedicated to Justice.

For a moment let us pause to remember our own list of such Friends – so many who walked that path toward a more just Commonwealth but who are not here to continue the journey with us.  So many who have pointed the way for us to follow.

Thank you. Remembering them and their examples has caused me to reflect on what Justice means to me and why it is and has been so important.

Much research and our own lived experiences have shown that children have an innate sense of fairness.  That desire for fairness, for everyone to be treated well, is probably the foundation of justice.

But in a world of more than seven billion people on this planet, we can hardly rely on an inchoate sense of what is fair for one or a small number of people to guide a complex society.

The law can also be used unjustly – to foster oppression and injustice as well as to foster fairness and justice. That is a lesson we have to learn and relearn so that we are eternally vigilant to push against the misuse of the law.

Growing up in the South in the 50s and 60s, I saw, or could have seen more clearly had I been willing to look, how the law could be and was used to subjugate one group of people because of the color of their skin. How the law could be and was used to steal from renters and share croppers like my grandfather the money they earned by endless hours of backbreaking toil and to deny them any redress.

Massachusetts has long recognized the moral basis of justice. Our Supreme Judicial Court was, in just one example, the first court in this country to declare slavery forbidden by the Constitution of the Commonwealth. But lest we get too complacent, remember that that same Court approved the segregation of the Boston Public Schools.

Having a moral basis for justice does not ensure that injustice will not continue; all around us, there are ample examples of injustice, of the failure to live up to the fairness justice requires.

To be reminded one has only to pause when walking toward the public entrance to the State House to gaze on the seated figure of Mary Dyer, who was hung on Boston Common because she refused to be silent about her religious faith, or look at the painting of Chief Justice William Stoughton in the House Chamber as he publicly repented of his role in convicting innocent girls and women of witchcraft.

Those public examples from the past are echoed in the economic disparity that is ever more visible all around us, in the bodies of the dead black men and women who have been the victims of those sworn to enforce the law and in the divisive public policies espoused by many people in high public office – policies and pronouncements that exacerbate economic disparity and social tensions.

What then to do in the face of such bleakness? As lawyers, as those who love justice, we can strive every day to use the levers the law gives us to right the balance of power in favor of fairness, while realizing that this is a struggle from which we cannot rest; for the forces of opposition are strong and ever striving to tip the balance in their favor.

There is something more we can do – something more personal – something that all the great religious faiths teach: to love one another and to live out that love.

One of the core commandments of Judaism is “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)

“You will not enter paradise until you have faith, and you will not complete your faith until you love one another.” (Prophet Muhammad)

“Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child.” (Buddha)

We all have our favorite or most meaningful expressions of that central truth. For me it is the parable attributed to Jesus of the Good Samaritan who found a man by the side of the road, robbed, beaten and bleeding. It is important that he took the man to an inn and paid for his food and care instead of passing him by. Most important is that he got down, down off his horse, down on the ground by the dirty, bleeding man whom he had never seen before and picked him up. That act of love, of compassion, says more about how we must live as champions of justice than any amount of money The Samaritan may have paid to have the man cared for.

I am humbled and so very grateful to be called a Great Friend of Justice in this company, in the memory of so many who have done so much for Justice before us.

Thank you – let us be about our business of seeking Justice.”

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.