BOSTON, MA, January 26 – On Thursday, January 25, more than 600 attorneys and law students from across Massachusetts gathered at the State House to lobby their legislators for increased funding for civil legal aid.
Excitement filled the air as people mingled and caught up with colleagues they had not seen in quite some time. This year marked the return of an in-person “Walk to the Hill,” as the COVID-19 pandemic led to three years of virtual events.
Walk to the Hill is an annual lobby day organized by the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC). The EJC is a partnership of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). Its mission is to advocate for civil legal aid funding at the state level through the budget line item for MLAC, which is the largest funder of civil legal aid organizations in the Commonwealth.
Civil legal aid provides free representation, guidance, and resources to people who are facing legal barriers to accessing basic needs and cannot afford an attorney. Households with incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty level ($39,000 per year for a family of four and $18,825 for an individual) qualify for civil legal aid.
For people with low incomes, access to a civil legal aid attorney can mean the difference between housing and homelessness; economic security and overwhelming financial burden; personal safety and domestic violence.
Walk to the Hill 2024 began with a speaking program that included Attorney General Andrea Campbell; Louis Tompros, Chair of the Equal Justice Coalition; Massachusetts Bar Association President Damian Turco; Boston Bar Association President Hannah Kilson; Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation Executive Director Lynne Parker; and Ms. Livia Gonzalez, a Worcester resident who recently received life-changing help from her local civil legal aid organization.
Ms. Gonzalez had the crowd on their feet when she finished her story.
As the primary caretaker for her adult son who suffers from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which is a terminal illness, Ms. Gonzalez had secured a rental home that was handicap accessible. Her son is so frail that moving him at this point could be fatal. Still, a new landlord pressured her to leave the unit, even though she paid rent on time month after month and took great care of the property.
“I could not have won my case without legal aid,” says Livia, whose attorney helped her obtain a settlement that allows her and her son to remain in the apartment and provides adequate time to find a new home after her son passes. “The system was stacked against my family. But with my attorney, I had faith – and we prevailed.”
After the speaking program, attendees met with their legislators to emphasize the importance of fully funding MLAC’s request for $55 million in FY25. Governor Maura Healey released her FY25 budget proposal on Wednesday, January 24. It included $50.5 million for MLAC’s line item.
Notably, increased investments over the past few years have resulted in a sizable decrease in the number of eligible residents being turned away, but still only about 50% of qualified applicants receive legal representation. While progress is admirable, it is clear that significant need for legal services remains.
“Ensuring justice is accessible to all will take sustained and significant investment,” says MLAC’s Lynne Parker. “With continued support from the state legislature, our legal aid organizations will expand and enhance their programs to serve more people in need.”