The Long Road to a Roadmap

On Wednesday, October 15, the BBA released its Task Force report on civil legal aid issues – “Investing in Justice: A Roadmap to Cost-Effective Funding of Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.”  We are extremely proud of the report.  As far as we know, this is the first time data such as turn-away rates and a survey on judge’s observations has been so systematically gathered and examined.  In addition, the report features the outstanding work of three independent economic analysts, who, working pro bono, broke down the areas of housing, domestic violence, and federal benefits into cost-benefit analyses based on state funding.

The report’s findings paint a dire picture.  Roughly 64% or more than 54,000 income-qualifying people who sought civil legal aid in Massachusetts last year were turned away due to lack of resources.  In addition, more than 60% of judges said that lack of representation resulted in a negative impact on the court’s ability to ensure equal justice.

However, the economic analysts’ reports reveal a potential boon for the Commonwealth.  Conservative estimates showed that investment in civil legal aid would actually result in cost savings to the state and growth for our economy.  Taking these numbers into account, the task force recommends a $30 million increase in annual state funding to help bridge the gap between existing resources and what is needed to provide appropriate civil legal aid to all who are eligible.  Although that amount will not solve the entire problem, it would be a great start.

“Investing in Justice” was released to some fanfare, with an exclusive article on the cover of the Boston Globe, radio coverage on WBUR and WBZ, and continuing media coverage, including a feature-length story in the MetroWest Daily News.  However, it is important to remember that this did not all happen at once.  The report is the result of more than 18 months of hard work by a devoted group of task force members.  Even beyond that it is the result of the foresight of task force chairman and former BBA president J.D. Smeallie, Holland & Knight, who decided to tackle the gargantuan issue of civil legal aid funding as his presidential initiative almost two years ago.

When J.D. Smeallie became president of the BBA in 2013, he took note of the revolution occurring in New York State surrounding funding for civil legal aid.  Since 2010, the state had been massively expanding its legal aid funding, based largely on reports issued by its Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, chaired by Helaine Barnett and created by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

Each year, the task force was comprehensively exploring different aspects of legal aid.  It gathered testimony from legal aid clients and business leaders and solicited the work of economists to examine potential cost-savings from legal aid funding.  It examined pro bono initiatives and ways law schools could get involved to meet the unmet needs for legal aid.  Finally, it made findings and recommendations for action, many revolving around state funding . . . and the state was listening.  In FY 2012, Judge Lippman demonstrated his personal commitment to civil legal aid, setting aside $27.5 million from his general court operating budget for civil legal services.  That allocation increased with the support of the state legislature to $55 million in FY14 and to $70 million in FY15.

Smeallie looked to New York’s task force as a model and began crafting his own team in Massachusetts.  He had a few priorities – to include representatives from all parts of the state and to make sure they had diverse interests.  In the end, his efforts produced the 28-member BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts:

Susan Alexander – Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer at Biogen Idec Inc. 
Lawrence Bacow –
Former President of Tufts University 
Chris Barry-Smith

Manisha Bhatt
 – Senior Attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services
Jonathan Chiel – Executive Vice President and General Counsel at Fidelity Investments
Hon. Martha Coakley – Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Katherine Cook – Chief Legal Counsel at The Office of the Governor
Paul T. Dacier – Executive Vice President and General Counsel at EMC Corporation, Past-President of the Boston Bar Association
Lawrence S. DiCara – Partner at Nixon Peabody LLP
Russell Engler – Professor of Law at New England Law | Boston
Hon. John V. Fernandes – State Representative at the Massachusetts House of Representatives
Robert Holloway – Past-President of the Massachusetts Bar Association
Kathleen Joyce – Senior Counsel at Boston Redevelopment Authority
James C. Kennedy – Chief Legal Counsel at the Massachusetts House of Representatives
Joan Lukey – Partner at Choate, Hall & Stewart LLP
Hon. Richard J. McMahon – Justice at Probate and Family Court, Bristol County
Martha Minow – Dean of Harvard Law School
Alice Moore – Counsel to the Massachusetts Senate
Susan Murley – Co-Managing Partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP
Joseph Nauman – Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Acushnet Company
Lon Povich – General Counsel at BJ’s Wholesale Club
Lonnie Powers – Executive Director of Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC)
Mary Puma – Chief Executive Officer of Axcelis Technologies
Faye Rachlin – Deputy Director of Community Legal Aid in Worcester, MA
Elizabeth Soule – Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services
Veronica Turner – Executive Vice President at 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East in Massachusetts
Hon. David Weingarten – First Justice at Boston Municipal Court, Roxbury Division
Hon. Jim Welch – State Senator at the Massachusetts State Senate, Hampden District

A look at their affiliations above shows how well he succeeded.  The group includes representatives from across the state, bringing together leaders from business, academia, and all three branches of government; attorneys from legal services, private practice, and in-house staffs.  In addition, the task force recruited three independent economic analysts, who provided pro bono services.  Analysis Group studied potential cost savings to the Commonwealth from civil legal aid funding in the area of housing, foreclosures, and evictions.  Alvarez & Marsal looked at domestic abuse issues, and NERA Economic Consulting calculated the potential for economic growth from investment in civil legal aid in the area of federal benefits.

We are proud to have watched this process from the beginning – the inspiration, the drafting of the task force, 18 months of intensive study, and finally the release of the report and resulting media and public reactions.  We hope that you will take the time to read “Investing in Justice” for yourself – contemplate the problem and consider the proposed solutions.  We hope that it will has profound an effect for you as it does for us.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association