When the BBA speaks publicly about the state budget, we are generally talking about funding that impacts the Massachusetts legal system. Specifically, that means advocating for funding for: the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), District Attorneys’ offices, legal services and the Judiciary. It is incumbent on us – the private bar – to ensure that these four groups receive the resources necessary to function properly. The BBA advocates annually for these groups and, lately, our advocacy efforts have continued year-round.
The demand on the legal system has never been greater. At a time when governments are forced to slash budgets, more people who depend on public services are being turned away. The legal system is often a place of last resort where people exercise their constitutional rights to seek relief in areas of housing, children’s services, employment matters, etc. All across the board – from public defenders to prosecutors, from legal service attorneys to the courts – the legal system has suffered heavy losses in resources while trying to stay on top of rising caseloads.
Here’s why we need these four areas of the state budget adequately funded:
The right to appointed counsel for indigent persons is fundamental under our federal and state constitutions. Massachusetts is obligated to provide competent legal counsel to every indigent person charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment, and CPCS is the state agency that manages these responsibilities. The size of the budget needed to fulfill this obligation is dictated by the number of cases that are assigned to the public and private divisions of CPCS by Massachusetts courts.
In line with our commitment to the right to counsel is our commitment to ample funding for the prosecutors’ offices that seek justice in every case. Without adequate funding for the state’s eleven district attorneys’ offices the effective prosecution of crime in Massachusetts would surely be compromised.
State funding for civil legal services is, in part, appropriated through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) line item. MLAC is the largest funding source for civil legal aid programs in the Commonwealth, funding 17 legal aid programs that provide information, advice and representation to low-income people with critical, non-criminal legal problems. Though MLAC also receives money from IOLTA revenue, the decline in real estate transactions – the largest contributors to IOLTA accounts – has caused this source of revenue to fall dramatically.
At the core of our legal system is the Judiciary, without which justice simply could not prevail. As a separate branch of the government, the Judiciary is fully dependent on tax dollars for its operation. The Massachusetts state courts are funded through state budget appropriations. Today, the Governor signed a supplemental budget that provides some additional money to our woefully underfunded courts. But it’s still not enough. The additional funding gives the courts some relief from the mounting pressure to do more with less. It is welcome news to those who have become accustomed to budgetary disappointment.
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association