BOSTON (April 9, 2014) – The House Ways & Means Committee recommended $13 million for civil legal aid funding in their Fiscal Year 2015 budget issued today. The amount matches the current fiscal year appropriation, but is $4 million less than what was requested by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), which receives the appropriated funds and makes grants to legal aid organizations that offer advice and representation to low-income individuals and families with critical civil legal problems.
Rep. Ruth Balser (D-Newton) will file an amendment to increase legal aid funding to $17 million before the House budget is finalized in early May. The increased funding is critical to prevent further cuts to legal services for low-income people struggling with life-changing legal issues such as child custody, domestic violence, employment, elder issues, housing, health care, or the inability to access government benefits. Low-income people dealing with these issues are not eligible for court-appointed attorneys. Instead, they rely on the availability of limited non-profit legal aid programs, which are often the only way that they are able to meet their basic human needs for health, safety, and housing.
Increased funding from the Commonwealth will help stabilize the finances of legal aid organizations still struggling to rebound from the 2008 financial crisis. MLAC’s revenue from another key funding source, the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program, has dropped 85 percent from $17 million in 2008 to $2.6 million this year. The decline has forced MLAC-funded legal aid organizations to lay off nearly 40 percent of their attorneys since 2008, and many face more layoffs this year without additional funding. The staff reductions mean that more than half of the domestic violence victims, families facing foreclosure and others who request civil legal assistance are turned away. People seeking help from MLAC-funded civil legal aid organizations must have incomes below 125 percent of the federal poverty level, or $573 per week for a family of four.
“Civil legal aid assures fairness for all in the justice system,” said Lonnie Powers, Executive Director of MLAC. “We look forward to working with members of the House of Representatives to ensure that their final budget includes adequate funding for the critical legal help that allows people to protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families.”