The news about IOLTA revenue, a key source of funding for legal aid to the poor, is grim and getting worse. Enter the pro hac vice admission fee proposal of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission (AJC).
This week, the BBA Council voted to support the AJC’s proposal that would boost funding for legal services programs. If approved by the Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts would join 41 other states and the District of Columbia in instituting a pro hac vice admission fee. While the Board of Bar Overseers will retain a portion of each fee to cover administration costs, the remainder of the $300 will go to the IOLTA Committee. IOLTA will then distribute it in the same proportions as other IOLTA revenue – to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), the Massachusetts Bar Foundation and the Boston Bar Foundation – for use in providing civil legal assistance to low-income residents of Massachusetts.
The reason for instituting a pro hac vice fee is twofold. It will help create a central listing of these types of filings and maintain records relative to the number of pro hac vice filings. More importantly, it will help legal aid by plugging a little of the funding gap. Though it’s difficult to predict exactly how much money the pro hac vice fees will bring in, based on the experiences of Texas and Pennsylvania, Massachusetts could collect between $300,000 and $500,000 annually.
Take a look at the frightening facts. IOLTA revenue is down – way down. So far in calendar year 2011, IOLTA has only collected $7 million. This is a $24 million drop from the revenue collected in 2007. And, in the last 3 budget cycles MLAC has been funded at the FY2008 level of $9.5 million, which has not prevented large-scale reductions in staff and service capacity for legal assistance organizations. The average MLAC-funded civil legal aid program has had to cut 25% of its attorneys – some have lost up to 40%. Meanwhile, demand for these services has increased dramatically. In the past year, 94,000 more individuals and families became eligible for civil legal aid.
And the federal landscape for legal services is even bleaker. A Congressional agreement for FY2012 being taken up on the House floor this week would provide $348 million to the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a 13.9% cut to LSC’s overall funding. There’s also the Supercommittee that needs to find ways to cut $1.5 trillion before itsNovember 23rd deadline. If the Supercommittee can’t work out a deal, automatic cuts would be made to defense and domestic programs equally. Any reduction to LSC in this process would guarantee that more Massachusetts residents in need of legal services will be turned away.
In today’s economic climate, everyone is hurting and the government is no exception. But civil legal assistance is a vital safety net for families facing foreclosure and eviction, victims of domestic violence, veterans returning from combat, residents affected by recent natural disasters and other vulnerable members of our communities. While the adoption of a pro hac vice admission fee will not alone solve the problem, it will help offset some of the devastating losses in funding for legal services that have recently occurred.
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association