Near Final State Budget and Innovation in Civil Legal Aid Advocacy

We are pleased to start with some great news.  The FY2016 budget appears to be just about settled as the House and Senate are voting on their Legislative overrides to the Governor’s proposed vetoes (read more about the budget process and all our budget priorities here), and both houses agreed to restore vetoed funding for Prisoner’s Legal Services ($190,504), the Housing Court ($235,527), and the Land Court ($291,470).  All three provide essential services to people in Massachusetts.  At the time of writing, the House had also voted 143-11 to override the Governor’s veto of $3.7 million from the Trial Court’s administrative staffing budget.  We hope the Senate will do the same.

The Land Court Department has statewide jurisdiction over the registration of title to real property and foreclosure and redemption of real estate tax liens.  It also shares jurisdiction over matters arising out of local planning and zoning board decisions.  The Housing Court Department has jurisdiction over civil and criminal actions, including equitable relief, which involve the health, safety, or welfare of the occupants or owners of residential housing.  It hears summary process (eviction) cases, small claims cases, and civil actions involving personal injury, property damage, breach of contract, discrimination, and other housing related claims.  It also hears residential housing code enforcement actions.  We are currently advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court jurisdiction, as it now covers less than 70% of the state population.  This can be accomplished through the enactment of S901/H1656, and we hope restoration of this funding demonstrates the value the Legislature sees in Housing Court, and represents a first step towards passage of these expansion bills.

Thank you to all our members who responded to our social media action alert for Prisoner’s Legal Services (PLS)!  PLS provides legal assistance to incarcerated individuals and promotes the safe, humane, and lawful treatment of Massachusetts prisoners through civil rights litigation, administrative advocacy, client counseling, and policy outreach.  It receives well over 2,000 requests for advice or assistance each year and is one of the only organizations of its kind in the state, working to assure prisoner’s rights are upheld – that they get the medical attention they need, their confinement conditions are constitutional, and they are safe from assault.  PLS’s vital legal aid also safeguards prison staff, protects public health, and eases the burden on our courts.

Throughout the budget veto and override process, the additional $2 million received by Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), which funds civil legal aid programs across the state, remained untouched.  This substantial increase will help MLAC expand its important work and brings its total funding for FY2016 to $17 million, representing a 15% year-over-year increase, when the overall budget increased by only 3%.  This percentage increase demonstrates a clear commitment from the Legislature and Governor to support civil legal aid while also running a more efficient Commonwealth, thanks to the cost savings provided by civil legal aid as demonstrated in our Investing in Justice task force report.

Even as the FY2016 budget cycle comes to an end, our work never stops.  It is precisely this summer “down time” when we need to redouble our efforts and find new ways to spread our message on civil legal aid.  The need for legal aid is ever increasing, and we constantly see new stories highlighting the need for increased funding for legal services agencies and underscoring the value of the assistance they provide.

With this in mind, we are pleased to report on an innovative new way the private bar is becoming involved.  The idea is law firm breakfasts throughout the year, featuring presentations by members of the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC) and MLAC on civil legal aid and advocacy.  It is based, at least in part, on the model started at Nutter McClennen & Fish, which holds a breakfast for the entire firm around the time of Walk to the Hill, the annual lobbying event for civil legal aid, to promote the Walk and explain the importance of lawyers advocating for civil legal aid funding.

The breakfasts are being arranged by the EJC with the help of its private bar liaison, Louis Tompros of Wilmer Hale.  After a successful start at his home firm, the group recently paid a morning visit to Holland & Knight, where Ben Stern was host and past BBA President J.D. Smeallie presented to a full boardroom on the findings of the BBA Statewide Task Force on Civil Legal Aid, which he chaired.  The breakfast also included presentations by MLAC Executive Director Lonnie Powers, EJC Chair John Carroll, of Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow, and EJC Director Deb Silva.

The speakers talked about the history of legal aid and its funding, the importance of legal services, the budget process, tips for advocacy, and the key role played law firm attorneys, who, as Louis explained,  understand the issues and have the means to do something about it.  The presenters stressed the importance of not only being an engaged voter but also contacting legislators to inform them that their constituents care about legal aid.  Just this small act can go a long way and make a major difference.

Thank you to everyone who helped us advocate for our budget priorities in this budget cycle.  We will continue to keep you updated, and hope that you’ll be ready to answer the call again when the FY2017 budget process begins in January.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association