Budget Talks will Determine Size of Legal Aid Gaps (State House News)

Below is an article published by State House News on January 31 highlighting recent budget talks for civil legal aid as the EJC recently kicked off its budget advocacy campaign with its annual Walk to the Hill event.


Funding for legal aid for those who can’t afford it would rise slightly under Gov. Maura Healey’s annual budget, which also calls for a new $3.5 million program to increase access to legal representation for low-income tenants and low-income owner occupants in eviction proceedings.

“This a new investment at a time when many programs are being scaled back or level-funded, making this even more extraordinary,” Annette Duke of the Access to Counsel Advisory Committee wrote in an email after Healey’s budget was released last week, calling the planned program a “big step forward.”

According to the governor’s budget documents, less than 3 percent of tenants have legal representation in non-payment cases in housing court.

“Maintaining a robust rental assistance program and supporting efforts to reduce evictions while our state struggles with an affordability crisis is crucial to helping families avoid a housing crisis and face possible homelessness,” Healey’s team wrote in one of her budget briefs.

The budget bill, which is now before the House Ways and Means Committee for a lengthy review, also includes $50.5 million in funding for civil legal aid. That’s up from $41 million in fiscal year 2023 and $49 million in fiscal 2024, but short of the $55 million sought at the Equal Justice Coalition’s well-attended lobby day last week.

According to the coalition, a partnership of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, and the Mass. Legal Assistance Corporation, more than 600 attorneys and law students turned out to promote that difference that legal aid can make in people’s lives.

The coalition, which is seeking $55 million in aid for fiscal 2025, said there’s been a decrease in those eligible for aid being turned away thanks to investments over the past few years, but still only about 50 percent of qualified applicants are able to receive legal representation.

Civil legal aid provides free representation, guidance, and resources to people who are facing legal barriers to accessing basic needs and cannot afford an attorney, according to the coalition. Households with incomes at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level ($39,000 per year for a family of four and $18,825 for an individual) qualify for civil legal aid.

The State House News article can be found here.

UMass Law students champion funding for civil legal aid (UMass Law)

Below is an excerpt from a news article published on January 29 by UMass Law documenting the experience their law students had at the 25th annual Walk to the Hill lobbying day event.


On Thursday, January 25, 50 UMass Law students and Assistant Dean Julie Cahill “walked to the hill”—namely the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill—to lobby for civil legal aid funding in the Massachusetts state budget for fiscal year 2025.

And, for the 5th consecutive year, UMass Law won the “Highest Participation for a Law School Award” from the Equal Justice Coalition.

“We are fortunate at UMass Law to have so many individuals who study and work at the law school because of an abiding passion for justice, access, and opportunity,” said Dean Sam Panarella.  “The incredible participation of our students at this year’s Walk to the Hill event is one more example of our community living this mission of pursuing justice—a mission that our public law school was founded to serve.”

“I am thrilled to attend Walk to the Hill each year with our law students and introduce them to the importance of civil legal aid,” said Assistant Dean Julie Cahill. “When law students participate in this event and see the impact civil legal aid has on the lives of the clients who are served, they may one day become legal aid lawyers doing this critical work in our communities, fulfilling our mission to Pursue Justice.”

Read more at UMass Law.

General counsels, law school deans support $55M for civil legal aid programs

Below is a press release written by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, published by the Boston Business Journal on January 17.


Nearly 60 corporate counsel and managing partners and nine law school deans from some of the largest firms and institutions in Massachusetts penned letters to Gov. Maura Healey urging the state to allocate $55 million for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. (MLAC) to the fiscal 2025 budget for civil legal-aid services.

The $55 million request is a $6 million increase from the $49 million approved for fiscal 2024. The MLAC is the largest funder of civil legal aid in the state, with 95,000 Massachusetts residents benefitting from civil legal aid in fiscal 2023, which ended June 30. For residents at or below 125% of the poverty line — $18,225 for an individual, 37,500 for a family of four in 2023 — civil legal aid is a “lifeline,” the Equal Justice Coalition wrote in a release Wednesday.

Financially eligible clients can receive free representation from a legal-aid attorney in family law, workers rights, tenant protections and other legal areas. A group of general counsel, managing partners and law school deans each wrote to show their support for Bill Gabovitch, general counsel of retailer Primark US, said it’s crucial to keep the justice system fair and open to everyone.

“Massachusetts has an impressive and impactful network of legal-aid organizations that are changing lives every day,” wrote Gabovitch, who was one of the 58 signees to the letter that went to the governor’s office. “Having access to a legal-aid attorney can mean the difference between housing and homelessness, or financial stability and extreme poverty.”

The 58 lawyers and law school deans represent a wide range of industries in Greater Boston, from banking and financial services to education and health care.

In fiscal 2023, legal-aid organizations funded by MLAC secured nearly $100 million in estimated benefits won on behalf of clients and savings obtained for the state, according to the legal assistance organization.

The letter is a precursor for the Equal Justice Coalition’s 25th annual “Walk to the Hill” event scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 25. The walk brings together private bar attorneys, law students and advocates for justice from across the state to lobby for increased funding for civil legal aid for low-income Massachusetts residents.

What is ‘Walk to the Hill’ all about? (Mass Lawyers Weekly)

Below is an excerpt from a letter to the editor published by Mass Lawyers Weekly on January 12, written by John Carroll, a former Chair of the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC), who currently serves “Of Counsel” to Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, where he has worked since 1985. The letter details the history and importance of the EJC’s annual advocacy day, Walk to the Hill. 


This year, for the 25th time, legal professionals from across Massachusetts will gather to lobby their legislators for increased funding for civil legal aid. After three years of virtual lobbying, “Walk to the Hill” will once again be in person. And the event is on Jan. 25 — a good omen!

What is the Walk all about? Its origin can be traced back to the “Great Society” programs of President Lyndon Johnson, who in 1964 created the Office of Economic Opportunity. One of its major goals was to provide legal representation to those most in need.

After the Legal Services Corp. was created in 1974, legal services offices were placed in every state, covering virtually every county in the country. Eligibility guidelines were set at $125 percent of the federal poverty level (which currently equates to $37,500 a year for a family of four, or approximately $721 a week).

Subsequently, both LSC’s resources and activities were severely curtailed by Congress.

Federally imposed limitations triggered a unique response from Massachusetts. Prominent attorneys from large and small firms alike joined forces to ensure Massachusetts citizens had adequate funding for civil legal services.

Read the full letter at Mass Lawyers Weekly.

State’s legal aid costs up 130% over 2019 (The Eagle-Tribune)

Below is an article published on October 10 by The Eagle-Tribune discussing increased funding and demand for civil legal aid in Massachusetts. 


BOSTON — The state’s costs for providing legal aid to low-income clients have risen dramatically in recent years as Beacon Hill has pumped more money into the budget, but advocates say more funding is needed to meet the demand.

In the current fiscal year, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation will get $49 million in state funding for its providers to pay for civil legal services for low-income clients.

That’s a more than 130% increase in funding from the 2019 fiscal year, when the state’s contribution was about $21 million, budget figures show.

Overall, the corporation distributed more than $57 million to legal-aid groups last fiscal year, including $41 million in state funds, along with money from a lawyers’ trust fund, grants and private foundations, according to the group’s latest financial report. That’s compared to about $30 million four years ago.

Erin Horan, a spokeswoman for the corporation, said the increased state funding is welcome but doesn’t fully meet the rising demand for crucial legal services for impoverished people facing eviction, deportation and domestic violence issues.

“The demand remains incredibly high,” she said. “More people need legal services than can be served, and every year there’s a need to increase the state’s allocation to help sustain and grow the program.”

The corporation estimates roughly 47% of the low-income clients who qualify for legal aid are turned away because of a lack of funding. That’s down from 57% several years ago, she said, but shows the demand still outpaces the amount of funding available to provide legal aid.

Horan said the services through the program are a crucial safety-net for low-income individuals who are fighting eviction and fleeing domestic violence but can’t afford legal representation.

“If you’re accused of a crime you have the right to an attorney,” she said. “But if you’re facing an issue such as domestic violence, housing discrimination or eviction, you don’t have that right.”

A sizable chunk of the corporation’s funding comes from a line item in the annual $56 billion state budget, which it distributes in grants to groups like Greater Boston Legal Services and the Disability Law Center. Those groups use the money to pay attorneys to represent indigent clients in civil cases ranging from housing and health care, to immigration, domestic violence, disability and elder abuse.

To qualify for legal aid, a household must have a yearly income at or below 125% of the federal poverty level, which in 2023 equated to $18,225 for an individual and $37,500 for a family of four.

Hundreds of lawyers affiliated with legal aid groups funded through the program handled more than 42,000 cases last year, helping more than 95,000 people, according to the corporation’s latest report.

One of the biggest demands for legal aid in the previous year were housing issues, which comprised more than 40% of the cases.

“Housing is one of the biggest issues we deal with, and the pandemic made that worse,” Horan said.

The money is also devoted to help indigent asylum seekers and other immigrants fill out paperwork and fight deportations. The Massachusetts Immigration Legal Assistance Fund has distributed nearly $3 million, including $675,000 in the previous fiscal year, to legal-aid agencies that work on immigration cases.

Read this article on The Eagle Tribune’s website.

Talk to the Hill draws more than 1,000 people to support $49M for civil legal aid in FY24

BOSTON, January 27– On Thursday, Governor Maura Healey, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd, bar association leaders, and legal aid clients joined a virtual gathering of more than 1,000 people – including 755 members of the private bar and several dozen law students for Talk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. The event kicked off the Equal Justice Coalition‘s campaign to support $49 million in the FY24 state budget for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which funds civil legal aid organizations across the state. Civil legal aid organizations provide legal advice and representation at no cost to Massachusetts residents with low incomes. People and families with incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty level ($37,500 per year for a family of four) qualify for civil legal aid.

The Walk to the Hill lobby day event, which engages members of the private bar and is now in its 24th year, has been held in a virtual format since the COVID-19 pandemic.

After hearing from the program’s speakers, attendees joined breakout rooms with their legislators. These meetings offered a unique opportunity for private attorneys and law students to speak directly to legislators and share why they believe civil legal aid is critically important.

Photo of Maura Healey speaking in front of green wall and framed painting.

Maura Healey speaks at Talk to the Hill 2023

In her opening remarks, Governor Healey, a longtime supporter of civil legal aid, said she looks forward to “continuing this partnership to make sure that every Massachusetts resident has access to the legal representation they deserve, and to make our state more just and equal for all.”

Healey also noted that legal aid services have become even more critical throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “That’s why we need legal aid to be strong,” she said. “Not only to handle the uptick of cases we’ve seen, but also to help us address systemic problems, level the playing field, and secure access to justice for everyone who needs it.”

Screenshot of Chief Justice Budd speaking on video, with blurred background and close captioned text reading "The need is clear."

Chief Justice Budd speaks during the program.

Chief Justice Budd spoke about the importance of legal aid in maintaining confidence in the legal system. She referenced a recent nationwide poll conducted by the National Center for State Courts that asked respondents if they believe the court system is fair.

“The responses from people of color were particularly concerning,” Chief Justice Budd said. “Approximately 60% of Black and Hispanic respondents said that the phrase ‘provide[s] equal justice to all’ does not describe state courts.

There are undoubtedly many complex factors that contribute to this perception of unfairness. But one concrete step that we can take … is to increase the availability of counsel for people who cannot afford a lawyer.”

Powerful testimonials

Simi, smiling, sitting on office chair in front of a gray wall and blue and white abstract painting.

Simi shares her legal aid story.

Client speakers included Simi, a young woman who connected with the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts for help with an immigration issue. Simi was 16 when her hometown in Nigeria was attacked by terrorists while she was studying at a summer program in New England, for which she’d earned a scholarship. “I got scared,” Simi said, “and I decided to not go back. It was one of the most difficult decisions I had to make.”

“Having access to organizations like the Children’s Law Center, and lawyers like Jay [McManus] … it’s like a ticket to hope,” Simi said. “I’ve moved from just having hope to actualizing dreams that I never thought I’d accomplish in life.” With help from her attorney, Simi secured a green card in late 2019. She graduated from Wesleyan University last May.

Jim, smiling, sits at a table with glass of water in front of him. An abstract orange painting is visible in the background.

Jim, a legal aid client, shares his story.

A second client speaker, Jim, told his story of getting helped by his local legal aid with an unemployment issue. Jim worked in the bathroom remodeling business when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Afraid to risk his own health and the health of others (and heeding the advice of public health officials), Jim stopped going into other people’s homes for a period of time. He filed for Unemployment Insurance, and his application was approved. A year after he had received his benefits, however, Jim got a letter stating he was determined to be ineligible and needed to repay more than $35,000.

“I was shocked, to say the least,” says Jim. He contacted MetroWest Legal Services and an attorney took his case right away. The attorney represented Jim at a hearing and presented evidence supporting his appropriate refusal of jobs during a global pandemic. The judge ruled him eligible to receive Unemployment Insurance, and he did not have to repay any amount of the money he had rightfully received.

“When I contacted legal aid and found out they were willing to work with me on this case, I was relieved tremendously,” Jim told the Talk to the Hill crowd. “It meant a significant difference to my emotional and financial health.”

More funding in FY24 is critical

Louis Tompros, Partner at WilmerHale in Boston, serves as Chair of the Equal Justice Coalition which coordinates the event each year. Tompros says the impact of increased state appropriated funding is evidenced by improvements in the number of eligible residents served. A few years ago, 57% of people who met financial requirements and applied for help were denied representation; today that number is 47%.

While it is encouraging that organizations are accepting more cases, Tompros emphasizes that “nearly half of the people who are eligible still do not receive representation simply because staff resources are insufficient.”

Lynne Parker, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, says that since the pandemic began, “We’ve seen dramatic increases in housing cases and unemployment cases, for example. Responding to these and other urgent needs requires a robust workforce of legal aid staff. More funding will help recruit and retain skilled advocates needed to make justice for all a reality in Massachusetts.”

The recorded program is available for viewing at ejctalktothehill.org.

List of Speakers:

  • Governor Maura Healey
  • Chief Justice Kimberly Budd, Supreme Judicial Court
  • Grace V.B. Garcia, President of the Massachusetts Bar Association
  • Chinh H. Pham, President of the Boston Bar Association
  • Lynne Parker, Executive Director, Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation
  • Jacquelynne J. Bowman, Executive Director, Greater Boston Legal Services
  • Legal aid clients who received help over the past year
  • Host: Louis Tompros, Chair, Equal Justice Coalition

Additional Coverage of Talk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid:

 

Dozens of general counsel endorse $49 million for civil legal aid (Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly)

Below is an excerpt from a Jan. 12 editorial published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

More than five dozen general counsel recently sent a letter to Gov. Maura T. Healey to support the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp.’s and Equal Justice Coalition’s FY24 state budget request of $49 million for civil legal aid organizations.

The group of 63 attorneys from the Massachusetts business community agree that the civil legal aid organizations need more funding to meet the demands of a state emerging from a global pandemic.

“There is no right to an attorney for most types of civil legal cases, including cases that could lead to loss of housing, domestic safety, or financial stability,” said Paul T. Dacier, general counsel at Indigo, who signed the letter. “These are fundamental issues that significantly impact the most important people in our society. We should all want our systems to be fair and just, because when both sides have representation, justice is best served.”

Read more at Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (subscription required).

University of New Hampshire (UNH) School of Law profiles Lynne Parker, MLAC Executive Director, in Alumni Spotlight

Below is an excerpt from the UNH Franklin Pierce alumni blog article, published on December 1, 2022.

UNH Franklin Pierce Alumni Spotlight: Lynne Parker, JD ’88

As she was nearing her college graduation, Lynne Parker, JD ’88  knew she wanted to enter the Peace Corps. Her experience through volunteering to help women in Guatemala start small businesses piqued further interest in what has turned into a decades-long legal career spent serving others.

“I honestly felt like when I went to law school,” Parker says, “that was the only work that was interesting to me.”

In Guatemala, Parker and other Peace Corps volunteers were charged with encouraging women to become members of a savings and loan cooperative and showing them that, with diligent attention to those savings, they could eventually become business owners.  

“I ended up working with three different women’s groups in three different areas outside of Guatemala,” recalls Parker, who was able to communicate effectively in Central America through her fluency in Spanish. “I saw public interest law as being able to make a difference in a way that I would feel good about and would want to be involved in over the course of my career.”

Read more at the UNH Franklin Pierce alumni blog.

Boston Bar Foundation announces grant to Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission for civil legal aid directory

The Boston Bar Foundation (BBF) announced on Thursday that it will grant $12,000 in special funding for the purpose of creating a civil legal aid directory to serve the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The donation was made to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), acting for the benefit of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission (ATJC).

The directory will inform and educate private foundations and businesses about philanthropic opportunities to support legal aid programs by enabling potential donors to quickly and easily find where to make donations to legal services that align with their ideals and goals.

“The Boston Bar Foundation is thrilled to provide funding for this project, which supports the ecosystem of legal aid providers throughout the Commonwealth,” remarked BBF President Russell Beck. “In addition to our portfolio of direct legal services granting, the BBF’s support of this new resource will enable organizations working directly in the community to ensure equal access to civil justice.”

“The civil legal aid directory is a powerful tool to help funders achieve their goals in areas such as family preservation, housing, education, immigration, racial equity, and further access to justice for those unable to afford an attorney,” said Marijane Benner Browne, co-chair of the Massachusetts ATJC. “The civil legal aid directory will also serve as a valuable resource to those seeking legal assistance, as well as researchers.”

Currently, information about more than 70 organizations funded by the BBF, the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, and MLAC has been accumulated. According to John Kenneth Felter, member of the Massachusetts ATJC Revenue Enhancement Committee, the directory “will contain key information about each organization, including, among other things: contact information, types of legal services provided, mission statement, geographic service area, number of attorneys and legal assistants, numbers and types of matters opened and closed, and basic financial information.”

“Our hope is that many funders across the state will learn about the civil legal aid directory, gain a better understanding of the critical and essential work being done by civil legal aid organizations in Massachusetts, and fund organizations that align with their mission and goals,” said MLAC Executive Director Lynne Parker.

First established by the Supreme Judicial Court in 2005, the ATJC seeks to improve access to justice for people who are unable to afford an attorney for essential civil legal needs. Among other activities, the ATJC coordinates with civil legal aid organizations to support their activities and develop new initiatives to address unmet needs. MLAC—the largest funder of legal aid organizations in the Commonwealth—provides funding, leadership, and a variety of supports to statewide and regional legal aid organizations across Massachusetts which serve low-income people with civil legal problems.

“The mission of the Commission and the BBF go hand in hand, as both strive to facilitate the development and implementation of innovative strategies aimed at increasing access to justice for those unable to afford legal counsel and expanding access to legal services,” said Benner Brown.

The BBF serves as the charitable affiliate of the Boston Bar Association. The Foundation helps serve the community by funding and promoting innovation in the delivery of legal services; facilitating access to legal counsel in underserved communities; and supporting the public service projects and pro bono work of the Boston Bar members.

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.