Supreme Judicial Court Appoints New Co-Chairs For Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission

BOSTON, MA — The Supreme Judicial Court today announced the appointment of three new co-chairs to lead the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission: the Honorable Serge Georges, Jr., Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court; Marijane Benner Browne, Esq.; and Laura W. Gal, Esq. They will take office on June 30, 2021, succeeding current co-chair Susan M. Finegan, Esq., and the late Honorable Ralph D. Gants, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, who served as co-chair of the Commission until his death last September.

Established by the Supreme Judicial Court in 2005, the Access to Justice Commission seeks to improve access to legal assistance and other resources for people who are unable to afford an attorney for essential civil legal needs, such as cases involving housing, consumer debt, and family law.

“I would like to thank Justice Georges, Attorney Browne, and Attorney Gal for their willingness to take on these important leadership roles for the Commission,” said Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd. “I am confident that they will continue the Commission’s vibrant tradition of creative, collaborative problem-solving. And I would also like to thank Attorney Finegan for her extraordinary service to the Commission as a member since 2011 and as co-chair since 2015, and especially for her fortitude in guiding the Commission’s crucial work through all the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the passing of Chief Justice Gants during the past year.”

“During these difficult times supporting access to justice for everyone in the Commonwealth has never been more essential,” added current co-chair Susan Finegan. “The Commission is so fortunate that Justice Georges, Attorney Browne, and Attorney Gal will be carrying on our critical efforts to address the many access to justice issues that we are facing. The Commission will benefit from their collective wisdom and experience and will continue to thrive under their leadership.”

The Honorable Serge Georges, Jr., was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court by Governor Charlie Baker in December 2020 after serving seven years as an Associate Justice of the Boston Municipal Court. Before his appointment to the bench, he had a diverse private practice focused on commercial litigation and criminal defense practice in state and federal courts. He also teaches at Suffolk University Law School and the University of Massachusetts School of Law. Justice Georges is a graduate of Boston College and Suffolk University Law School.

Marijane Benner Browne, Esq., is Director of Lateral Partner Recruiting at Ropes & Gray LLP. Attorney Browne has been a member of the Commission since 2012, serving as co-chair of its Revenue Enhancement Committee. She has also served as a member and chair of the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation; as a trustee of Bowdoin College; and as Vice Chair of the Boston Law Firm Group, a consortium of Boston-area legal employers dedicated to the recruitment, retention and advancement of attorneys of color. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Harvard Law School.

Laura W. Gal, Esq., is the Managing Attorney of the Family Law Unit at Greater Boston Legal Services and has previously held positions as Supervisory Attorney for Family Law at Northeast Legal Aid and as a staff attorney at Community Legal Aid. She served the Commission as its part-time consultant from September 2017 through June 2019. Since her appointment as a Commissioner in September 2019, she has also served as co-chair of the Commission’s Family Law Committee, and as a member of the Executive Committee. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the George Washington University National Law Center.

Justice Georges and Attorney Browne will both be serving three-year terms, while Attorney Gal will be serving a special one-year term to assist with the Commission’s leadership transition.

Among other activities, the Access to Justice Commission coordinates with civil legal aid organizations to support their activities and develop new initiatives to address unmet needs. The Commission also works to increase the number of attorneys able to provide pro bono or limited assistance civil legal services and coordinates with the court system on initiatives that assist individuals in understanding and navigating civil legal proceedings. The Commission’s members include representatives from the court system, legal aid organizations, social service organizations, bar associations, law schools, businesses, and other stakeholders in the access to justice community.

Civil Legal Aid Needs Rise Due to Pandemic Impacts

Altered Landscape Fuels Push for $6 Mil State Aid Bump

The state’s largest funder of civil legal aid services is asking lawmakers to increase state funding by 20 percent in the fiscal 2022 budget to help fund services for low-income residents facing legal issues in areas like housing, employment, education, and government benefits.

Lawmakers and representatives from several of the state’s civil legal aid corporations gathered on Zoom Tuesday to press for the $6 million increase in the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation line item (0321-1600). Second Division Chair Rep. Ruth Balser said the Legislature “is deeply committed” to civil legal aid.

“There is no justice if people without means cannot protect themselves in our courts … and MLAC and the services they provide always help people who face unemployment issues, housing eviction issues, health care access issues, immigration issues, [and] domestic violence issues,” the Newton Democrat said during a virtual briefing. “I do have to say that while we always deeply appreciate the work of our friends in the legal services, nothing has been like the challenge they’ve faced during this pandemic.”

Read more in State House News Service (subscription required).

AG, Chief Justice, hundreds of attorneys call for increased funding at Talk to the Hill

Advocates urge legislature to fund civil legal aid at $35M in FY22

With demand for civil legal aid surging amid the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of attorneys and law students gathered online to make the case for increased state funding for civil legal aid.

The 22nd annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid was reinvented this year as the Talk to the Hill, an online meeting headlined by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd, and Michael Curry, president and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.

“We need civil legal aid to be stronger than it has ever been before,” said Healey, supporting the $35 million in funding that the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation is seeking in FY22 – a $6 million increase over FY21. Though she refers to the Attorney General’s office as “The People’s Law Firm,” Healey said, “Legal services attorneys are the people’s lawyers.”

Louis Tompros, chair of the Equal Justice Coalition and partner at WilmerHale, chaired the online meeting, and opened with a moving video tribute to the late SJC Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, who died unexpectedly in September. A longtime champion of civil legal aid, Chief Justice Gants spoke annually at the Walk to the Hill. “We deeply miss his leadership, and we deeply miss his inspiration,” Tompros said.

Chief Justice Kimberly Budd continued the tradition of the Court’s support of increased civil legal aid funding. “The tragic events of the past year have focused our attention on the many inequities in our society. The pandemic has created unprecedented disruptions in employment, education, childcare, and everyday life. And the resulting hardships have fallen most heavily on those who can least afford them,” said Chief Justice Budd. “If we are truly committed to eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in our society, one of the simplest steps that we can take toward that goal is to make it possible for more people to receive legal aid.”

The annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid is hosted by the Equal Justice Coaltion, a partnership of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. MLAC Executive Director Lynne Parker said that, “As we look to FY22, we are increasingly concerned that the number of those who qualify for civil legal aid will continue to rise as a result of the pandemic.” She noted that civil legal aid is an essential service, and “a significant and critical part of the Commonwealth’s social safety network.”

Michael Curry, of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, stressed the importance of having lawyers on the front line of public health issues to confront the “social determinants of health.” He asked lawyers to “lean in at this moment,” and urged the legislature to increase critical funding for civil legal aid.

Client testimony
Two clients shared their stories of how legal aid lawyers kept them and their families safely housed and financially stable during the pandemic.

Raymond Malo

Raymond Malo

Raymond Malo, a U.S. Army veteran, received help from Veteran’s Legal Services after his landlord sought to evict him and his family after he complained about hazardous conditions in his home. His lawyer not only prevented the eviction, but also is helping him try to purchase the property from the new owners of his duplex. Thanks to VLS, Mello said, “we were able to keep from being thrown out on the streets, and now we have the opportunity to purchase the home.”

Malensky Oscar was wrongly terminated from her job after she took time off to care for her young daughter, whose school closed due to the pandemic. Her job was pressuring her to return, but said she could take unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act. When she tried to return after a three-month leave, Oscar was fired. She applied for back pay and unemployment compensation, but was denied. Her doctor suggested she contact Greater Boston Legal Services, which helped her appeal the denials. “Within a matter of weeks, they were able to have the decision overturned and my funds released to me,” Oscar said. “I do believe that if I didn’t reach out and have GBLS with me to help with the appeal…that I would not have been able to get my family out of that financial burden.”

Malensky Oscar

Malensky Oscar

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that civil legal aid is an essential resource for vulnerable individuals and families,” said Denise Murphy, president of the Massachusetts Bar Association. “The number of civil cases involving critical legal issues has risen dramatically, as has the number of people who qualify for assistance.”

Boston Bar President Martin Murphy also made the case for increased funding. “At the core of the rule of law is a vision of equality, a belief that the law should protect us all – not just the rich, or the powerful, or the privileged,” he said. “But we know the rule of law can’t defend itself. Without funding for civil legal aid lawyers – the lawyers who are truly essential frontline workers in the fight for economic and racial justice – the vision of equal access to justice that breathes life into the rule of law is really nothing more than an illusion.”

At the conclusion of the speaking program, lawyers, advocates, and law students broke into 40 Zoom meetings with members of the state legislature to advocate for the funding increase. Jacquelynne Bowman, executive director of Greater Boston Legal Services urged them to tell their legislators, “People are hurting, and many of our most vulnerable neighbors, who struggled before the pandemic, are at even greater risk today.”

Tompros added, “Tell them civil legal aid is an essential service, and everyone who needs a lawyer should have one.”

Cover photo: Attorney General Maura Healey and Chief Justice Kimberly Budd

Watch the speaking program on YouTube.

More news coverage of Talk to the Hill:
The Boston Globe: SJC Chief Justice Kimberly Budd calls for increased civil legal aid funding for low-income residents
The Salem News: Budd pushes for civil legal aid funding
Mass. Bar Association eJournal: Legal Aid Advocacy Goes Virtual At Talk To The Hill
Boston Bar Association: Hundreds Gathered to Advocate for Civil Legal Aid Funding at Virtual Talk to the Hill
UMass Law – Feature Stories: UMass Law honored for highest participation in 2020 Walk to the Hill event that raises funds for civil legal aid

SJC Chief Justice Budd Speaks of Need for Increased Civil Legal Aid at Talk to the Hill

In remarks delivered today at Talk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd spoke of the need for increased state funding for organizations that provide civil legal aid to vulnerable low income Massachusetts residents, a need made more urgent during the pandemic. Walk to the Hill, an annual event in its 22nd year, was renamed Talk to the Hill this year and held virtually due to the pandemic.

“The tragic events of the past year have focused our attention on the many inequities in our society. The pandemic has created unprecedented disruptions in employment, education, childcare, and everyday life. And the resulting hardships have fallen most heavily on those who can least afford them,” said Chief Justice Budd.

Organized by the Equal Justice Coalition, the event called for increased funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), the largest funding source for civil legal aid organizations in the state, by $6 million in the Fiscal Year 2022 state budget, for a total appropriation of $35 million.

According to MLAC, legal aid organizations in Massachusetts turn away 56% of eligible residents seeking help. Residents whose income is at or below 125% of the federal poverty level ($32,750/year for a family of four) are eligible for civil legal aid.

Chief Justice Budd said that data from the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) shows that over half of the clients served by state legal services organizations receiving LSC grants are people of color.

“If we are truly committed to eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in our society, one of the simplest steps that we can take toward that goal is to make it possible for more people to receive legal aid,” she said.

“We are very fortunate to live in a state where the Governor and the Legislature understand these issues,” Chief Justice Budd said. “In recent years, the Legislature has provided steady increases in funding for legal services. As a result, we have seen significant improvements in the percentages of people receiving assistance.”

Still, Chief Justice Budd noted, legal services organizations must turn away over half of those who ask for help. “They do not have the resources to meet everyone’s needs,” she said. “And as you all know, those needs are especially great right now, with all of the problems caused by the pandemic. Employment, housing, family law, domestic violence, consumer debt, and immigration are all areas of particular concern.”

“For every dollar spent on civil legal aid, MLAC tells us, we reap roughly two dollars in economic benefits for the Commonwealth and its residents. But more importantly, the additional legal assistance that dollar provides may be the difference for someone between having a home and losing it, making ends meet or going without heat, staying safe or living in fear,” said Chief Justice Budd.

The program began with a tribute to the late Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, who championed civil legal aid funding.

In addition to SJC Chief Justice Budd, speakers included: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey; Michael Curry, Esq., President & CEO of Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers; Massachusetts Bar Association President Denise Murphy; Boston Bar Association President Martin Murphy; Lynne M. Parker, Executive Director of Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation; Jacquelynne Bowman, Executive Director of Greater Boston Legal Services; and civil legal aid clients who received assistance during the pandemic. Louis Tompros, Chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, hosted the event.

Following the speaking portion of the event, lawyers, law students, and advocates in attendance moved into virtual breakout rooms to speak directly to state legislators to encourage them to increase funding in the Fiscal Year 2022 state budget for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

The Equal Justice Coalition is a collaboration of the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that low income residents with critical, non-criminal legal matters would have access to legal information, advice and representation. Civil legal aid organizations provide support to individuals in cases related to housing, employment, family law, domestic violence, health care, education, immigration, and protection of seniors, among other civil matters.

Legal Project Scaling Up to Help Prevent Evictions

A legal assistance project started by the Baker administration as a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures was set to end is looking to ramp up services and bring on a host of new attorneys as eviction cases for failure to pay rent are on the rise in the state.

The project, run by a group of regional legal aid organizations, provides assistance to both tenants and landlords facing pandemic-related eviction issues…The COVID Eviction Legal Help Project is hiring 48 attorneys, 48 paralegals, 24 senior lawyers, and 17 intake workers who will help tenants. And a group of pro-bono attorneys, through the Volunteer Lawyers Project, will provide legal assistance to income-eligible owner-occupants of two- and three-family properties. Read more at State House News Service. (subscription required)

For Legislators: A Guide to CELHP

On December 21, legislators gathered virtually for a briefing on the COVID Eviction Legal Help Project, which provides urgently needed legal assistance in pandemic-related eviction cases.

The CELH Project expands the capacity of existing legal aid organizations to provide essential help to income-eligible tenants facing eviction due to COVID-19 and to landlords who are income-eligible owner-occupants of two- and three-family homes.

The PowerPoint presentation below walks legislators, their staff, and anyone interested in learning how to prevent evictions, through the new program, which is administered by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. The Project also has a new website.

Gov. Baker Approves $29M for Civil Legal Aid Funding

$5M increase boosts aid for people harmed in COVID’s wake

Governor Charlie Baker has signed the FY21 Budget of the Commonwealth, allocating $29 million for civil legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation – a $5 million increase over the prior fiscal year.

“I applaud and thank Governor Baker for recognizing the urgent need for civil legal aid to help low-income people avoid the loss of essential benefits and protections during the pandemic,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of MLAC. “Civil legal aid is an essential part of the Commonwealth’s recovery from COVID-19, and the additional funding will help civil legal aid organizations in every part of the state serve more people facing serious threats to their safety and well-being.”

Parker also thanked the leadership of the House and Senate and the many legislators who recognized the unprecedented need legal aid lawyers are working to address. “Thousands more Massachusetts residents will receive legal assistance because of this funding, in the areas of housing, unemployment, domestic violence, family law, consumer debt, immigration, health care, education, and other benefits.”

Parker also recognized the advocacy of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, numerous other county and specialty bar associations, and managing partners at many of the state’s largest law farms. In addition, many social service workers and advocates spoke out for legal aid funding to help people in the communities they serve.

“Every day during this pandemic, we are reminded that everyone’s well-being is served when the health and safety of others is protected,” Parker said. “Additional funding for civil legal aid creates a wide array of benefits and advances the principles of justice and fairness for all people.”

MLAC Statement on Confirmation of Kimberly Budd as SJC Chief Justice

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation applauds the confirmation of Kimberly S. Budd as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Justice Budd brings extraordinary credentials, judicial experience, and legal intellect to the position. In her four years on the SJC and seven years on the Superior Court before that, she has shown herself to be a talented, thoughtful, and creative legal thinker with a deep commitment to fairness and justice for all. A former member of the board of directors of Greater Boston Legal Services, she also brings a keen understanding of the essential need for civil legal aid.

Upon accepting Gov. Baker’s nomination to be chief of the state’s highest court, Justice Budd called the occasion “bittersweet,” as she and the legal community mourned the passing of Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, whom she called a “mentor and a friend.”

Justice Budd filled the Superior Court seat of Justice Gants when he was elevated to the SJC, and she will now fill his role as chief. The legal aid community keenly felt the loss of Justice Gants, who was a longtime champion of civil legal aid and access to justice. We are confident that she will recognize legal aid’s vital role in safeguarding the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable people.

We celebrate this historic nomination and that Massachusetts will have its first Black woman chief justice.

We applaud Gov. Baker for this exceptional nomination and the Governor’s Council for its unanimous confirmation. We look forward to working with Chief Justice Budd to advance justice for all.

Lynne Parker, Executive Director

MLAC statement on the passing of Chief Justice Gants

We are deeply saddened by the passing of Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants. He was a true champion of civil rights and equal access to justice for all people, and his untimely death is a devastating loss for the Massachusetts legal community.

Chief Justice Gants spoke annually at the Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. He believed funding legal aid was a “moral obligation.” He told lawyers that advocating for legal aid funding was a chance to speak “for all those who have neither money nor power, but who might have the law on their side, if only they knew how to use it. Feel their hand on your shoulder. Speak their truth.”

His passing is a terrible loss for all those who seek justice. We at MLAC will miss him as an inspiring leader and as a deeply caring man who radiated good humor, humility, courtesy and kindness. His gentle, yet urgent, advocacy inspired us all to do better. He has been, and will continue to be, a reminder of what is good in the world.

We send our deepest condolences to his family. And we are confident his legacy will inspire a passion for justice in many generations to come.

Marijane Benner Browne, Board Chair, and Lynne Parker, Executive Director
Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation

A civil justice crisis is coming – Much greater funding for legal aid is needed

This piece was published by Commonwealth Magazine on September 10, 2020

Susan Finegan and Lynne Parker

THE COVID-19 CRISIS has come at Massachusetts in waves: a public health emergency, an economic collapse, a widening of racial disparities, and now, an overwhelming need for legal help. In response, the Commonwealth must fully support the essential work of civil legal aid, which helps low-income people retain housing, stay safe from domestic abuse, appeal rejected claims for unemployment and other public benefits, and resolve a host of other civil legal problems that are growing in the virus’s wake. As a result of the pandemic, the rising demand for civil legal aid in Massachusetts is straining existing resources and requires greater funding on the state level.

We are in this pandemic together, but we’re not all in it equally. Legal aid lawyers serve as essential workers on the front line, sounding the alarm that a justice crisis is imminent, disproportionately threatening the health, safety, and financial stability of low-income people—particularly low-income people of color. Systemic racism, underscored by recent protests following the deaths of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many other black people, permeates every aspect of society. And low-income people of all racial identities often lack the resources to maintain their financial stability through a major illness or job loss.

Civil legal issues can be serious and life-altering. But unlike in criminal cases, where lawyers are provided for people who cannot afford them, there is no constitutional right to a lawyer in every civil case. Even before the crisis, lean funding limited capacity and forced legal aid organizations to turn away the majority of low-income people who sought help. For those who can get help, civil legal aid organizations provide advice and representation at no cost to low-income residents. When the pandemic hit Massachusetts, legal aid organizations across the state mobilized to help people stave off unlawful eviction, file for unemployment, obtain restraining orders, and navigate matters in immigration court. The need is enormous and still growing, overtaxing legal aid organizations that were already stretched thin. The efforts of volunteer lawyers, while essential, cannot come close to meeting the need.

The faltering economy and skyrocketing unemployment mean more people in Massachusetts will be eligible for legal aid than before the coronavirus struck. Many will be families who had never turned to public benefits, but who now need help receiving benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, or unemployment insurance. A tidal wave of eviction and foreclosure cases is building. While Massachusetts has placed a temporary moratorium on evictions, mounting debt puts tenants at grave risk of homelessness when it expires.

The growing number of people who urgently need assistance includes people trapped with an abusive partner; students with disabilities, who still have a right to an equal education; older adults vulnerable to neglect; consumers confronted with scams or unexpected debt; prisoners, whose sentence should not include a life-threatening illness; and undocumented immigrants facing the prospect of deportation amid a global emergency.

The Massachusetts Legislature has consistently demonstrated broad support for legal aid. That said, the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 will continue to generate a surge of need that will overwhelm our legal aid system unless adequate funding is provided. Substantial and sustained support for civil legal aid must be part of the Commonwealth’s answer to the pandemic.

Just as doctors and nurses warned us about the public health emergency they knew was coming, civil legal aid lawyers now warn us of a civil justice crisis that is crashing upon Massachusetts. If we ignore these warnings, the consequences will be dire for families across the state. We must listen to these frontline responders and provide the resources they need to deliver justice for all.

Susan Finegan is a partner at Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo and co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission. Lynne Parker is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.