Chief Justice Kimberly Budd Zoom screenshot

Hundreds of lawyers ‘Talk to the Hill’ seeking more funding for civil legal aid

US Rep. Clark, AG Healey, CJ Budd join call for $41M in FY23

Assistant Speaker to the U.S. House of Representatives Katherine Clark, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd led more than 800 lawyers, law students and advocates at the Talk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid,  urging legislators to fund civil legal aid at $41 million in the FY23 Massachusetts state budget.

The 23rd annual lobby day for civil legal on January 27 was online for the second year due to the pandemic. COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on low-income residents has intensified the need for civil legal services and the need for an additional $6 million in FY23 funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, up from $35 million in FY22.

“Until we’ve conquered the coronavirus, we must continue to deal with its impacts on our society—not just medically, but legally, as well,” Chief Justice Budd said. “Just as we strive to provide necessary medical assistance to all who are affected by COVID, so we should strive to provide necessary legal assistance to all who are affected by COVID.”

Assistant Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Katherine Clark

Assistant Speaker Clark said that the pandemic “has exponentially increased the difficulties and traumas facing low-income Americans.” 

“Every day, we rely on legal aid attorneys to take on cases to help protect residents in our communities—representing workers who didn’t get paid what they were owed, preventing families from being foreclosed upon or evicted, helping people navigate the unemployment claims process, working with survivors of domestic violence and that’s just the beginning,” said Attorney General Healey, who has spoken in support of civil legal aid funding for many years.

Attorney General Maura Healey

The annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid, held as Talk to the Hill for the second year, is hosted by the Equal Justice Coalition, a partnership of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, and MLAC. MBA President Thomas Bond and BBA President Deborah Manus urged their members to speak out for increased funding for civil legal aid.

According to Lynne Parker, MLAC executive director, the legal aid organizations MLAC funds have turned away fewer people from receiving help in the past five years, due to recent increases in the state appropriation. However, more than 50 percent of people are still turned away.

“The network of legal services providers in Massachusetts is considered to be one of the best in the country and is a critical part of the Commonwealth’s social safety net,” Parker said. “We can and we must do better” to fund them.

Louis Tompros, chair of the EJC and a partner at WilmerHale, said that the Massachusetts State Constitution “promises to everyone in the Commonwealth that they will receive equal and equitable justice under law. And it is all of our duty—but particularly all of our duty as lawyers—to make good on that promise.”

‘There’s help out there’

Clients helped by legal aid organizations described how legal aid lawyers fought to keep them safely housed and financially secure during the pandemic.

Carol, civil legal aid client

Carol, who had been permanently disqualified from receiving SNAP benefits under the federal “three strikes rule,” said her troubles were compounded by the loss of her job during the pandemic. A legal aid lawyer with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute successfully argued that the violations barring her from SNAP benefits were invalid and helped get her benefits reinstated in time for Thanksgiving.

“People need to know that there’s help out there and that nobody should be turned away for food,” Carol said.

Ed, civil legal aid client

Ed, an Air Force veteran and former special education teacher, said that an advocate with South Coastal Counties Legal Services had saved him from eviction after he received a notice to quit from his landlord. “I was in very bad shape,” he recalled. “I immediately called legal services.”

Jean, civil legal aid client

Jean, who avoided eviction during the pandemic with the help of MetroWest Legal Services, said, “[My lawyer] was the bridge. She took my hand and said, ‘Let me cross you over.’”

(Watch Ed and Jean speak about their experiences here.)

After hearing the speakers, lawyers and advocates joined breakout rooms in their Senate districts to speak with legislators about their support for MLAC’s civil legal aid budget request.

Tompros urged everyone “as citizens, lawyers, and legislators—to make good on the promise of equal justice for those who need it.”

“To do that,” Tompros said, “we need to serve more people in need. To serve more people in need, we need more legal aid lawyers. And to have more legal aid lawyers, we need more funding for civil legal aid.”

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