Monthly Archives: September 2011

Legal Services Corporation Needs a Lifeline

This week BBA President Lisa Goodheart sent a letter to Senator John Kerry and the rest of the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation requesting support and protection for the funding of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC).  As written about before on Issue Spot, support for legal services is a core part of the BBA’s mission and is a vital service to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Funding for civil legal assistance in Massachusetts is a partnership between federal, state and local governments as well as private attorneys and foundations.  The current economic climate has led to a substantial drop in resources for LSC programs due to both a 50 percent decrease in IOLTA revenue over the past two years and budgetary constraints among state and private contributors. All this comes at a time of unprecedented need – more than 1 in 5 Americans now qualify for legal assistance.

Legal services funding is not merely a spending issue.  LSC-funded programs in Massachusetts provide critical legal services to individuals who need it most, including victims of domestic violence, veterans returning from combat, those coping with the after-effects of natural disasters, persons with disabilities, and individuals undergoing foreclosures and evictions.  LSC funds four programs in Massachusetts – the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, the Massachusetts Justice Project, Merrimack Valley North Shore Legal Services and the New Center for Legal Advocacy – all of whom have already absorbed massive cuts to their budgets and staff.

Why is LSC funding in jeopardy now?  It all goes back to August when Congress, reaching a last-minute compromise on the debt ceiling crisis, established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.  The Committee is made up of 12 lawmakers – including Massachusetts Senator John Kerry – who have been tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in budget savings by November 23rd.  If the Committee is unable to come up with the necessary savings, the difference will be made up by automatic spending cuts, divided evenly among domestic and defense programs.

Senator John Kerry and, in general, the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation have been supportive of legal services.  They understand that legal aid attorneys provide meaningful representation to people who have no place else to turn.  Despite the presence in Congress of legal aid advocates who appreciate the importance of legal services, the fiscal situation before the Committee is daunting.  Funding cuts threaten to adversely impact our neighbors, friends, families, and communities.  We need to do everything we can to ensure that the citizens of Massachusetts are able to receive the legal assistance they need.

 

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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Innovative Pilot Program Lends a Hand to Struggling Courts

At a recent meeting with our new President, Lisa Goodheart, we heard firsthand from staff and the First Justices of the Boston Municipal Court.  Inadequate funding of our state courts has hit the BMC hard.

All eight of the BMC’s First Justices described to us the drastic impact the budget crisis has had on the BMC and its ability to administer justice.  Inadequate staffing levels and the consequences of a hiring freeze have led to more delays in the processing of cases, increased security risks in courthouses, and low morale among hardworking employees who are troubled by the fact that it’s virtually impossible to provide adequate public services in a timely and effective manner.

So what’s a bar association to do?  It’s now a given that we advocate for adequate funding for the courts on a year round basis.  We also need to find creative ways to help fill the gaps left by a shrinking budget.

The district court clerkship program – a pilot partnership established by the BMC, with the help of BBA Diversity and Inclusion Section’s Co-Chair Macey Russell – does just that.

This pilot venture began with one purpose – to increase diversity in the legal profession and provide opportunities for minority law students.  But the program has also helped ease some of the negative effects of an underfunded judiciary, while mitigating the impact of a hiring freeze on court employees at no cost.  It was refreshing to hear about the positive experiences the BMC’s First Justices have had with the 3Ls that have been matched with them.

It’s a win-win situation.  The judges are thankful for the assistance, and the student interns have had fantastic experiences with invaluable mentoring from the judges.  Any assistance with the court’s workload is helpful.  The BMC’s First Justices appreciate having resourceful law student interns in their courts.

To date, the program has helped place over 20 students with judges around Boston.  If only a handful of clerkships at a single court can make a difference, imagine what the effect of an expanded program would be.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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Permanent Campaign for Court Funding Revs Up

As we wait to see whether the Massachusetts legislature will throw the Judiciary a life line – in the form of a supplemental budget with funding to fill the egregious gap between what our state courts need and what the legislature appropriated – we need to gear up for the future.  Not surprisingly, Fiscal Year 2013 is shaping up to be every bit as difficult as the past two fiscal years.  The BBA is in the throes of what it now realizes is a “permanent campaign” to secure adequate funding for equal access to justice in Massachusetts.

Nearly every constituency grows organically. For example, when state university students lobby for increased funding for higher education, hundreds of students at Massachusetts’ public universities — along with faculty and staff members – arrive by the busload and fill the halls of the State House. They tell stories about what would happen if funding were to be cut from their line items.  This grassroots effort yields results!

It’s a different story for the Judiciary.  If you believe the courts have no constituency aside from lawyers, you’re only half right.  Yes, a court is usually a place of last resort.  Most litigants go kicking and screaming after other efforts to resolve their conflicts have been exhausted.  Most people are not particularly happy about going to trial, and in fact many of them come out feeling even worse when they see the result.  When the Judiciary makes its annual funding request to the legislature, the group most inclined to take up the cause and carry the torch is a small one.

One other constituency that understands the gravity of the situation facing our state courts and the value of a properly funded judiciary is the business community.  In recent years, the Business Litigation Session has taken on a healthy caseload, demonstrating its value in making Massachusetts a more predictable place to do business.  Yet the lack of proper funding threatens even the Business Litigation Session.  Business leaders know that time is money.  They know all too well that for their employees using the court system to resolve their own personal disputes or serve as witnesses, court delays mean a loss of productivity, which in turn hampers competitiveness.

Each of the last two years, Paul Dacier, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of EMC Corporation, has rallied other general counsel to plead the case for adequate court funding.  To his credit, Paul recruited twenty-three other general counsel in 2010 and twenty-nine general counsel in 2011 at leading Massachusetts companies  – including John Hancock, Fidelity, Partners HealthCare System, National Grid, TJX, BJ’s Wholesale Club, and others – to sign onto a letter supporting funding for the courts.  While the signatories represent companies across Massachusetts, they are also lawyers and part of the constituency that understand the consequences of under funded courts.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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Reader Comments Re: Reduced Court Hours Miss the Mark

On Tuesday, the Supreme Judicial Court announced that it will reduce public office hours for 38 courthouses across the state starting September 19th.  The scheduling of court sessions will not be affected by the changes in office hours and access will be available for cases of the greatest urgency.

Kyle Cheney’s story on this subject ran in the Boston Globe on Wednesday, generating reader comments that reveal gross misperceptions about the work going on in our courthouses each day.

The court system is a sitting duck for attacks because it has no natural constituency, unlike the other branches of government, and because most of the public’s interaction with the courts stems from a negative life experience.  “Before the courts stage there (sic) work slowdown over budget cuts somebody ought to do a time study of what the court workers really do especially the judges,” wrote seen-it-all. “No money should be restored until the waste and fat is trimmed. Stop your whining!!!!!!”

What waste and fat?  The courts are in full triage mode.  Every day 42,000 people access our courts.  At last count, the number of Trial Court employees was down 1,167 people, a 15 percent reduction in staff since 2007.  In combination with budget reductions of $85 million over three fiscal years, the result has been a hiring freeze, work furloughs and an exhaustive reduction in non-personnel expenditures.  Cuts have been made everywhere, as the courts have been forced to use an ax in place of a scalpel. Courthouses have been consolidated, judges have asked for a moratorium on judicial appointments and plans for court relocations have been announced.

Another reader commented as if the recent announcement is nothing more than a political ploy: “Let the games i.e. posturing begin.  Cut my budget we’ll cut back hours and penalize everyone like a petulant child,” wrote XENOPHONIC.  The truth is that our state courts are staffed at levels well below national standards and there are just not enough employees to keep up with the caseload.

Our courts are hurting and the people who need access to them the most have been hit hardest. Ill-informed comments about our state courts do not help the cause.  Facts and figures are important, but numbers can only tell part of the story.  It is essential that we consider the real life anecdotes about the effect of the cuts on real people. We understand the financial situation facing the Commonwealth, but while cutting the state court budget may seem inconsequential to some people, it endangers the basic constitutional rights of Massachusetts citizens.  This cannot continue without disastrous consequences for the administration of justice.

 

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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Passage of Probate Laws Needed ASAP

The Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code (UPC) will be effective for estates on January 2, 2012; it became effective for guardianship on July 1, 2009.  This landmark piece of legislation is something the BBA has worked on and supported for over 20 years.  Not only does the UPC improve what was a deplorable situation concerning the appointment and conduct of guardians, but it will simplify the probate process for families and our courts while expediting the process for administering estates. The UPC facilitates the appointments of executors and also provides options for choosing informal or formal procedures to open and close probate matters.  All in all, lawyers and the courts are pleased with it.

The Probate and Family Court has been educating its staff on the new law and working diligently to promulgate new forms that will be used when the rest of the UPC is rolled out in January.  To supplement their efforts, the BBA will offer a continuing legal education seminar introducing the new estate rules in November to help practitioners navigate the changes.

Now what? The Legislature needs to pass two more bills quickly.  The first, S704, contains technical corrections to the UPC.  These corrective changes address issues that came to light during the initial implementation and take into account things like missed cross references, typos and other oversights. The second bill, the Massachusetts Uniform Trust Code (MUTC), is a companion piece to the UPC.  Since the MUTC repeals most of Article VII of the UPC and replaces it with more current language, it would be advantageous to have all the statutory trust law provisions in the same place in the new MUTC and take effect as scheduled on January 2, 2012.

Like the UPC, the MUTC is a substantial bill that has been well-vetted.  It was produced by the Uniform Laws Commission after a five-year drafting period.  Then in 2005, an ad hoc committee of lawyers, including members of the BBA, was convened to review the bill in detail.  They debated each section of the MUTC and, as a result, what we have is a statute that will simplify and make the trusts laws in Massachusetts more accessible.

Here are just a few reasons that the MUTC should be passed:

  • The laws concerning trust will be uniform, comprehensive and easy to find.
  • It will make the administration of trusts more uniform among the states.
  • It will reduce uncertainty and costly and needless litigation.
  • It provides guidance and protection for trustees who, by the terms of the trust, are to take direction from a non trustee.
  • It simplifies judicial proceeding regarding non judicial settlement agreements and modification and termination of trusts.

January is less than five months away and, realistically, we are looking at a legislative schedule that at best might enact the bills by late September – not a lot of time to conduct the education and training necessary for a smooth implementation next January.  Whatever can be done to facilitate the prompt passage of the MUTC legislation should be done.  Adopting the MUTC will move Massachusetts into the 21st century in trust law.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

BostonBar Association

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