State’s legal aid costs up 130% over 2019 (The Eagle-Tribune)

Below is an article published on October 10 by The Eagle-Tribune discussing increased funding and demand for civil legal aid in Massachusetts. 

BOSTON — The state’s costs for providing legal aid to low-income clients have risen dramatically in recent years as Beacon Hill has pumped more money into the budget, but advocates say more funding is needed to meet the demand.

In the current fiscal year, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation will get $49 million in state funding for its providers to pay for civil legal services for low-income clients.

That’s a more than 130% increase in funding from the 2019 fiscal year, when the state’s contribution was about $21 million, budget figures show.

Overall, the corporation distributed more than $57 million to legal-aid groups last fiscal year, including $41 million in state funds, along with money from a lawyers’ trust fund, grants and private foundations, according to the group’s latest financial report. That’s compared to about $30 million four years ago.

Erin Horan, a spokeswoman for the corporation, said the increased state funding is welcome but doesn’t fully meet the rising demand for crucial legal services for impoverished people facing eviction, deportation and domestic violence issues.

“The demand remains incredibly high,” she said. “More people need legal services than can be served, and every year there’s a need to increase the state’s allocation to help sustain and grow the program.”

The corporation estimates roughly 47% of the low-income clients who qualify for legal aid are turned away because of a lack of funding. That’s down from 57% several years ago, she said, but shows the demand still outpaces the amount of funding available to provide legal aid.

Horan said the services through the program are a crucial safety-net for low-income individuals who are fighting eviction and fleeing domestic violence but can’t afford legal representation.

“If you’re accused of a crime you have the right to an attorney,” she said. “But if you’re facing an issue such as domestic violence, housing discrimination or eviction, you don’t have that right.”

A sizable chunk of the corporation’s funding comes from a line item in the annual $56 billion state budget, which it distributes in grants to groups like Greater Boston Legal Services and the Disability Law Center. Those groups use the money to pay attorneys to represent indigent clients in civil cases ranging from housing and health care, to immigration, domestic violence, disability and elder abuse.

To qualify for legal aid, a household must have a yearly income at or below 125% of the federal poverty level, which in 2023 equated to $18,225 for an individual and $37,500 for a family of four.

Hundreds of lawyers affiliated with legal aid groups funded through the program handled more than 42,000 cases last year, helping more than 95,000 people, according to the corporation’s latest report.

One of the biggest demands for legal aid in the previous year were housing issues, which comprised more than 40% of the cases.

“Housing is one of the biggest issues we deal with, and the pandemic made that worse,” Horan said.

The money is also devoted to help indigent asylum seekers and other immigrants fill out paperwork and fight deportations. The Massachusetts Immigration Legal Assistance Fund has distributed nearly $3 million, including $675,000 in the previous fiscal year, to legal-aid agencies that work on immigration cases.

Read this article on The Eagle Tribune’s website.