The need in Massachusetts is great; even with increased funding, demand goes unmet
BOSTON, October 15, 2014―The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) today praised a new report by the Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts finding that most low-income Massachusetts residents who need assistance with civil legal aid matters are unable to obtain it. The report calls 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 to best meet unmet civil legal aid needs.
“We who work in civil legal aid have long known that demand for services dramatically outstrips supply. This gap in justice affects our entire state, and is fueling a burgeoning crisis in our courts,” said Lonnie Powers, MLAC’s executive director, who also served on Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts. “Civil legal aid services are life-saving for people who have nowhere else to turn when faced with critical civil legal matters, including domestic violence, eviction, illegal dismissal from employment, and child custody issues. A well-functioning judiciary and a strong civil legal aid system are vital for ensuring that the most vulnerable among us have access to justice. The increased investment called for in this report is a much-needed first step to ensuring that access to justice in Massachusetts is not based on how much money you make.”
Despite a state funding increase last fiscal year from the Massachusetts Legislature, overall funding for civil legal aid in Massachusetts has declined in recent years. The Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts program (IOLTA), historically the largest source of revenue for civil legal aid in Massachusetts, provided MLAC less than $4 million in FY14, down from a peak of $17 million in FY08. This decline has forced civil legal aid organizations, which dedicate the vast majority of their budgets to providing direct client service, to lay off attorneys and paralegals, institute furloughs and leave positions unfilled. Perhaps most damaging, this growing funding gap forces these organizations to turn away increasing numbers of eligible clients in dire need of civil legal aid services, estimated by the Task Force to be as high as 64 percent of eligible low-income people in 2013.
The report by the Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts found that investment in civil legal aid could lead to substantial savings for the Commonwealth. Civil legal aid programs help clients access improperly denied benefits, and can attract additional federal dollars to the state. They can also save the state in avoided costs. For instance, families who are able to retain their housing with civil legal assistance are able to stay out of homeless shelters and avoid costs related to those services.
“This report has assessed the impact of civil legal aid and the need for it in Massachusetts in new ways. The case for increased investment in civil legal aid is compelling, and we hope this report spurs a much-needed public conversation around increasing access to justice for all our residents and swift action by the Massachusetts Legislature to invest critically needed state funding which is a proven economic benefit to our Commonwealth and the residents we serve,” Powers added.
The full report of the Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts is available here.
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.