Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. Statement on House Ways & Means Budget Recommendation to Increase Funding for Civil Legal Aid
BOSTON, April 15, 2015 – The House Ways & Means Committee recommended $17 million for civil legal aid funding in its Fiscal Year 2016 budget issued today. This amount is $2 million more than last year’s appropriation and a positive step in the direction of the $25 million originally requested by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC).
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 one of our most potent tools in fighting poverty, as it 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,” said Lonnie Powers, MLAC Executive Director. “At the same time, state investments in civil legal aid yield significant economic returns for our clients and the state.”
The Commonwealth should support programs that not only make the lives of our residents and communities better, but also those that yield a return on investment. 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.
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 had requested a $10 million increase in the state’s investment in civil legal aid, from $15 million to $25 million .
The request for a significant increase to MLAC’s budget appropriation stems from 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 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.
With great consideration given to the fiscal challenges faced by the state, Representative Ruth Balser will file an amendment to increase the House Ways & Means recommendation by $5 million, for a total appropriation of $22 million, as the House budget is debated. Though less than MLAC’s original budget request, this funding increase would be an important first step in 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.
“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 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.