Another Point of View: Looking at the News from a Legal Aid Perspective

Earlier this week we were pleased with the Boston Globe editorial on our recent task force report, “Investing in Justice: A Roadmap to Cost-Effective Funding of Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.”  The Globe shares our view that “[t]he Legislature should find a way to increase funding for civil legal aid in the next budget.”

As we’ve discussed before, the report is the culmination of 18 months of hard work by leaders from around the state and independent economic analysts.  It makes a compelling argument that we need to increase funding for civil legal aid in order to help people in our society secure basic rights to life necessities such as shelter and protection from an abuser.  The Globe agreed, endorsing the report and concluding that its statistics on cost-savings – a return of $2 to $5 for every dollar spent on certain areas of legal aid – more than justify our call for increased state investment.  As the editorial board concluded, “It’s far better to invest money now for legal aid than it is to bear the costs later.”

The Task Force report itself has been the subject of recent media coverage in a variety of forms.  But once you’ve read the report, it’s remarkable how many other stories in the news register as tangentially related – stories about the growing ranks of poor, homeless, and abused among us.  While increased funding for legal aid is not a panacea for all of these tales, it would certainly make a difference by keeping people from being wrongfully evicted, securing them deserved federal benefits, and helping them escape a cycle of domestic abuse.

Part of the problem we discovered was simple supply and demand.  The number of people qualifying for legal aid, with income at 125% of the federal poverty level has increased to nearly one million people in Massachusetts, while the number of legal aid attorneys has decreased over the last seven years due to declines in funding.  As the Boston Globe reported earlier this week, the current poverty rate in the state is at its highest point since 1960.  It is no wonder, then, that 64% of qualified individuals seeking legal aid are turned away, as the Task Force discovered.  There are simply not enough attorneys to meet the demand.  This situation results in individuals incurring more debt to meet their daily needs, plunging them into further debt and poverty.  Though many of these people likely qualify for some sort of federal benefits, it is often very difficult for them to navigate the complex system and paperwork without the help of a legal aid lawyer.

In late October, CNN Money reported on debt and credit issues facing victims of domestic violence.  We know from our work on the Task Force Report that concerns about finances are a major factor in domestic violence, and often a trigger of abuse, particularly when there is an income disparity that creates a dependence of one partner upon the other.  Ideally a domestic violence victim will leave their abuser, but with no money and no place to go, this can be a daunting task.

Only a couple weeks later, the New York Times reported that shelters nationwide report that nearly ¼ of all families cite abuse as the cause for their stay.  Civil legal aid providers can help domestic abuse victims by aiding them in securing restraining orders, demanding funds, such as child support payments from abusers, to help promote the victim’s independence, and working with shelters to assure a placement.

Homelessness presents its own difficulties, as recent stories demonstrated just how easy it can be to fall into homelessness and the dire need for shelters, especially after the recent closure of the Long Island bridge.  From our Task Force we learned that 56% of eligible people with housing problems in Massachusetts were turned away from legal aid, and a significant number of them were likely facing wrongful eviction that could have been prevented.  The result is increased costs for the state from police to health care, and shelter expenses, not to mention the long-term costs resulting from children growing up without stable homes and the increased difficulties in finding a job while living in a shelter.  In assessing such situations, the Task Force’s independent economic analysts calculated that every dollar invested in this area likely saves the state nearly three dollars.

Civil legal aid is a sound investment for the state – one that will create a positive return while also helping those individuals most in need.  While it can’t, in isolation, solve our problems of domestic violence, homelessness, and poverty, it will change many lives, and hopefully that will be the news we get to read about in the future.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association