Spreading the Word About Civil Legal Aid

cropped NELBEarlier this week, we were pleased to see the Chair of our Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, J.D. Smeallie, and Task Force member Professor Russell Engler, take part in a panel discussion along with Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) staff attorney Alexander Mitchell-Munevar at New England Law Boston.  The panel examined both a right to counsel and the current civil legal aid system.  Although the criminal right to counsel is imperfect, it is far more effective than the current civil legal aid system, wherein 64% of those in need are turned away.  On the criminal side, a right to counsel was born out of the Gideon Supreme Court case and its progeny in the early 1960s.  On the civil side, the Supreme Court has largely, though not entirely, rejected a right to counsel, starting in the Lasseter case in the 1970s and continuing through the 2011 Turner v. Rogers case.  These rulings have put us at odds with the rest of the world, as European countries began granting a right to counsel in certain civil cases around the time of the Lasseter decision.

Because of these holdings, the fight for a civil right to counsel has largely shifted to the states, and it has had some successes, particularly in Massachusetts.  For example, the Commonwealth gives a right to counsel in many civil juvenile cases and parental termination cases.  In fact, one-third of the cases handled by the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), the public defender organization in Massachusetts, are civil cases, largely in these areas.

Regardless of how it is addressed, either through a right to counsel or legal aid agencies, there is still a major shortfall in service resulting in the bulk of legal needs going unmet for poor populations.  There are many potential solutions – all of which have already been explored in some way or other in Massachusetts, often by the BBA, but which are always evolving in an attempt to make the most impact.  These include:

  • Simplifying court procedures
  • Installing new technologies
  • Revising the roles played by judges, clerks, and other court staffers
  • Hotlines, pro se clinics such as lawyer for the day programs, limited assistance representation opportunities, pro bono lawyers, court service centers, law student volunteering, non-lawyer “lay advocates”

However, as the New England Law panelists discussed, even if we are able to expand access to justice through some of the above ideas, another issue emerges: the quality of justice.  The goal is to offer meaningful access, not mere access to justice.  Certainly as the justice system currently exists in Massachusetts, the best way to accomplish that is by providing those in need with a legal aid attorney.  This means providing much-needed representation to individuals facing legal challenges for basic life necessities such as a wrongful eviction or a child custody dispute with an abuser.  It is not to provide lawyers to deadbeat renters or scheming divorcees.

Setting aside the moral imperative to give everyone meaningful access to justice, the BBA’s report, provides another justification – it’s a sound investment.  While the state has done a great job at gradually increasing the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) line item and the private bar has stepped up to provide tens of millions of dollars in donations and pro bono services, the need for legal aid has never been greater.  However, based on the conservative reports of independent economic analysts, Massachusetts can expect a sizable return on investment for every dollar spent on civil legal aid.  In housing, each dollar invested yields $2.69, mostly in police and shelter costs.  In domestic violence, each dollar invested yields $2 in medical cost savings, and in federal benefits, each dollar invested yields a $5 economic benefit to the state.

The numbers are clear, now it is just a matter of spreading the word, and we are trying to do that every way we can.  From the forum described at the start of this post, to a Boston Globe cover story, numerous op-eds and editorials, and the recent Walk to the Hill, we are doing everything we can to expand the conversation about the need for civil legal aid funding.  We even took to Twitter with the Equal Justice Coalition’s (EJC) #iwalkforjustice campaign, featuring lawyers, politicians, and other public servants holding up signs explaining why they value legal aid.  Now it is your turn to spread the word – contact the Governor and your legislators (don’t know who represents you? Look them up here) let them know you understand the importance of civil legal aid and request that they fund line item 0321-1600 at $25 million for his FY2016 budget.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association