Massachusetts State House

MLAC Urges State Senate to Increase Investment in Civil Legal Aid

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Catherine Rizos

MLAC Urges State Senate to Increase Investment in Civil Legal Aid

BOSTON, May 17, 2016 – The Senate Ways & Means Committee recommended level funding of $17 million for civil legal aid in its Fiscal Year 2017 budget issued today. The Senate’s recommendation is significantly less than what the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) requested, and falls short of what is needed to address the profound gap in access to civil legal aid that exists for low-income individuals and families in the Commonwealth. Given the great depth of unmet need among those seeking civil legal aid, and the significant return on investment yielded by civil legal aid funding, MLAC will continue to advocate for an increase in civil legal aid funding during the Senate budget debate next week.

“Civil legal aid is a practical and proven solution, both social and fiscal, to the Commonwealth’s most challenging problems and it strengthens the resilience of families in need and the communities in which they live. It gives thousands of low-income residents, including children, access to legal help as families seek to stay in their homes when faced with illegal foreclosure or eviction. It helps victims of intimate partner violence and their children stabilize their lives and escape danger. It helps in overcoming barriers to employment, education, or quality health care,” said Lonnie Powers, MLAC Executive Director. “We work in close partnership with other community-based social service programs across the state. Ultimately, this work improves lives, strengthens communities, and saves taxpayer dollars.”

MLAC disburses the state’s civil legal aid funding to 14 civil legal aid programs across Massachusetts 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. Eligible residents are those with incomes below 125 percent of the federal poverty level, or an annual income of $30,368 for a family of four.

This past February, MLAC released its annual Economic Benefits Report, which documented that services provided by MLAC-funded programs in fiscal year 2015 yielded at least $35.1 million in savings or new revenue for the state.

State Senators Cynthia Creem and Will Brownsberger will file an amendment to increase legal aid funding by $3 million. This additional funding is needed to begin addressing the significant unmet need among those who are eligible for and seek civil legal aid.

Currently, due to lack of funding, civil legal aid programs are forced to turn away more than 60 percent of those eligible for civil legal aid in Massachusetts who seek services.

The request for the increase in civil legal aid funding is based on a recommendation by the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, which issued a report in 2014 that clearly demonstrated the lack of access to legal representation faced by low-income residents of our state. The report called for an additional state investment of $30 million in civil legal aid in Massachusetts, to be implemented in $10 million increments over three years.

“Everyone, regardless of income, should have equitable access to our justice system. Unfortunately, that is not the case in our courts today,” said Marijane Benner Browne, chair of the MLAC Board of Directors. “No one should be forced to fight an illegal foreclosure without an attorney. The complexity of legal issues related to overturning improperly denied access to health care and education requires assistance from an attorney. 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.”

About MLAC

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.