BOSTON, May 13, 2015 – The Senate Ways & Means Committee recommended $15 million for civil legal aid funding in its Fiscal Year 2016 budget issued yesterday. This amount is significantly less than MLAC requested, and falls far short of what is needed to address the profound access to justice gap that exists for low-income individuals and families in the Commonwealth. Given the depth of unmet need, and the significant return on investment yielded by civil legal aid funding, MLAC will continue to advocate for additional funding.
MLAC disburses the state’s civil legal aid funding to 14 civil legal aid programs across the state that assist low-income individuals and families in resolving issues related to basic necessities such as housing, employment, classroom accommodations for children with disabilities, and conflicts related to child support and custody, divorce, and domestic violence.
“Civil legal aid is a proven solution, both social and fiscal, to the Commonwealth’s most challenging problems. In these difficult fiscal times, the state’s allocation of resources should support programs that make the lives of our residents and communities better, and that yield a significant return on taxpayers’ investment,” said Lonnie Powers, MLAC Executive Director. “Civil legal aid gives thousands of low-income residents across Massachusetts access to legal help as they seek to escape intimate partner violence or overcome barriers to employment, education, or quality healthcare.”
Sen. William Brownsberger will file an amendment to increase legal aid funding by $5 million. The additional funding is needed to begin addressing the significant unmet need among those who are eligible for and seek civil legal aid. Eligible residents are those with incomes below 125 percent of the federal poverty level, or $583 per week for a family of four.
Currently, more than 60 percent of those eligible for civil legal aid in Massachusetts who seek services are turned away due to lack of resources. To bridge this gap in access to justice, MLAC requested a $10 million increase in the state’s investment in civil legal aid, from $15 million to $25 million.
Earlier this year, MLAC released its annual Economic Benefits report, which demonstrated that successful representation in appeals to Social Security Insurance, Social Security Disability Insurance, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare coverage, and federal tax decisions resulted in $8.6 million in new federal revenue for the Commonwealth. An additional $11.6 million was gained through child support orders, debt relief for homeowners in foreclosure cases, and additional non-federal Unemployment Insurance claims and representation for tenants. The state saved $13.5 million in services that it would have otherwise provided if not for civil legal aid: emergency shelter, foster care, and medical costs related to domestic violence. All told, the state’s $15 million investment in civil legal aid last year yielded at least $33.7 million in savings or new revenue for the state.
“Equitable access to our justice system should not be out of reach for our low-income residents. Often, it is what prevents them from cycling further down into poverty and instability,” said Marijane Benner Browne, chair of the MLAC Board of Directors. “As we move forward, we must ensure that legal aid organizations across the Commonwealth have the resources they need to serve our most vulnerable residents.”
The request for a significant increase to MLAC’s budget appropriation is based on a recommendation by the Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, which determined that civil legal aid is unavailable to the majority of qualified residents who seek it. The Task Force’s comprehensive report, issued in 2014, called for an additional state investment of $30 million in civil legal aid in Massachusetts, beginning with a $10 million dollar increase in FY 16.
The Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts was created by the Boston Bar Association in April 2013 to assess the work of civil legal aid in Massachusetts and determine how best to address unmet civil legal aid needs.
The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that low-income people with critical, non-criminal legal problems would have access to legal information, advice and representation. MLAC is the largest funding source for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts. For more information, visit www.mlac.org.