Funding Justice: BBA FY17 Budget Advocacy

On Wednesday, the Legislature took the second major step in the FY2017 budget process, releasing the House Ways and Means budget recommendation, roughly 2.5 months after the January 27 release of the Governor’s budget recommendation.  The BBA has been advocating for adequate funding for the judiciary through the Trial Court line items, civil legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) line-item, and statewide expansion of the Housing Court.  We sent a letter to Brian Dempsey, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee detailing the funding needs in these areas.

Here is where things currently stand as to each of these BBA budget priorities:

MLAC

Funding for civil legal services has never been more crucial, in large part because legal aid helps address many of the most pressing social issues facing the Commonwealth today.  Every day, legal aid helps prevent unjust foreclosures and evictions, protect victims of domestic violence, and assure access to essential care and services, including life-saving treatments to combat addiction.  And that is only a small piece of what they do.  They provide advice and representation in many and diverse legal areas, including helping set up small businesses and organizing mentoring nonprofits.

However, because of their outstanding reputation and the overwhelming need for legal aid, MLAC agencies had to turn down 64% of the qualified clients seeking their services in 2013 according to the findings of the BBA’s Investing in Justice Task Force Report.  And that was only the people who actually got through the long wait times to have their issues considered.  As a result, the courts have to bear the weight of pro se litigants who often do not understand court procedures, bogging down the justice system and creating added work for already overburdened judges and court staff.  Most importantly, it also often leads to an unjust outcome, particularly where one side has representation and the other does not.  In a recent survey of judges, more than 60% responded that the influx of pro se litigants hindered the fair administration of justice.

Here is a breakdown of MLAC funding:

FY16 Final Budget Amount$17,000,000
FY17 MLAC Request$27,000,000
FY17 Governor’s Budget$17,170,000
FY17 House Ways & Means$18,000,000
FY17 House FinalHouse budget debate will take place during the week of 4/25
FY17 Senate Ways & Means

Forthcoming

FY17 Senate Final
FY17 Conference Committee
FY17 Final Budget Amount

 

Representative Ruth Balser will be filing an amendment requesting an additional $9 million in MLAC funding.  We hope that you will call your Representative or email them directly and ask them to support her amendment (Don’t know your legislator?  Look them up here), not only for the great work legal services agencies provide, but also because they can essentially pay for themselves. Investing in Justice demonstrates that in the areas of evictions, domestic violence, and federal benefits every dollar invested in legal aid returns $2 to $5 to the state.  Be sure to thank them for the House’s generous $2 million funding increase last year!  Legal aid is already putting that investment to good use, to handle an additional 1,230 cases, benefitting some 3,295 residents.  With $10 million more this year, they can expand their reach to more than 16,000 additional people.

Trial Court

The Trial Court is comprised of seven departments which handle nearly all of the cases in the Commonwealth and represent the main point of contact for nearly all Massachusetts residents who have legal issues they need resolved.  Thus it is essential that courts are adequately funded.  The Trial Court provides an annual budget breakdown wherein it asks for a maintenance funding amount, which is what is required to continue providing current services, and a host of modules for the budget-makers to consider with additional funding.  This year’s maintenance budget request is around $654 million, and the nine modules range in price from $785,000 to $10 million.

In the budget, the Trial Court is represented by 15 line items.  It received a generous increase of nearly $20 million in last year’s budget, but the judiciary is still underfunded.  The courts have made great strides toward modernizing and enhancing efficiencies under the new management structure put in place by the Legislature, as evinced by their request for maintenance funding of only 6,520 staff positions, a 17% reduction in staffing levels since FY02.  Furthermore, in the last eight years, while the state budget has increased 43.3% overall, funding for the Trial Court, a major piece of the third co-equal branch of government, has increased by only 7.9%.

However, the Trial Court still has a major need for increased funding in order to continue improving.  For example, the installation of new technologies, which can ultimately save on staffing and overhead costs, requires large up-front investments.   In addition, the Trial Court’s facilities are in dire need of upgrades in the area of security systems, to preserve the safety of court employees, users, and the general public — a $4.1 million module.  Furthermore, innovations such as the successful Specialty Courts, a $2.8 million module, increase access to justice for vulnerable populations, but need adequate staffing and funding to thrive and expand, so that all residents who can benefit from participation in the Specialty Courts have access to them.

As shown in the table below, the Governor’s budget included roughly a $7 million increase over last year’s funding level, but is still $17 million below the Trial Court’s maintenance funding needs.  Funding at this level would result in layoffs of approximately 300 Trial Court employees according to a statement from SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants.  The House Ways and Means budget matched that amount but also included the Specialty Courts module.

FY16 Final Budget Amount$631,500,000
FY17 Maintenance Budget Request$654,374,856
FY17 Governor’s Budget$638,606,000
FY17 House Ways & Means$639,900,000 (includes Specialty Courts module)
FY17 House FinalHouse budget debate will take place during the week of 4/25
FY17 Senate Ways & Means

Forthcoming

FY17 Senate Final
FY17 Conference Committee
FY17 Final Budget Amount

 

Housing Court

The BBA has been advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court for the last year. Housing Court is a special court session conducted by experienced and expert judges.  They operate out of already existing court houses, providing landlords and tenants with a special legal forum to resolve disputes, as well as code enforcement, mortgage fraud, and numerous complex housing matters.

Housing Court was first established in 1972 for the City of Boston.   Since then, it has gradually expanded through the advocacy work of local constituencies to its current makeup, consisting of five divisions covering approximately 80% of the state geographically – but only about two-thirds of the population.  Housing Court is the only forum in the Commonwealth set up to handle code enforcement, evictions, and other housing issues on a daily basis.  Its judges have the expertise to analyze the federal, state, local laws, and codes on housing.

Housing Court is also the only forum to use Housing Specialists, individuals who mediate cases, saving potential litigants time and money they would otherwise spend to have their case heard in court.  Over half of Housing Court cases were resolved in this way last year.  Specialists also perform on-site reviews of property to resolve issues concerning housing conditions.  In part because of these services, Housing Court is extremely efficient, featuring the lowest cost per case of any Trial Court department.

Finally, Housing Court is adept at serving pro se litigants and individuals facing evictions.  It is home to the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP), a counseling service designed to intervene in cases affecting individuals with physical and/or mental disabilities to help prevent homelessness, as well as volunteer lawyer-for-the-day and other self-help forums.

Despite all these benefits, nearly one-third of Massachusetts residents do not have access to a housing court.  Currently, there is no Housing Court for all of Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket Counties, most of Norfolk County, and a large portion of Middlesex County.  These areas include cities such as Chelsea, Framingham, Malden, Cambridge, Medford, Somerville, Watertown, Woburn, and Waltham, which have some of the highest number of rental units.  As a result, any housing or code enforcement issues in these counties are heard in District Court, where judges may not have any special housing expertise and housing cases are simply a drop in the bucket of a high volume caseload.  One consequence we’ve heard is that municipalities not covered by the Housing Court sometimes don’t even bring code-enforcement actions to District Court, because they know the inevitable delays make it not worth the effort.

The total cost to the state for the expansion is estimated to be roughly $2.4 million per year.  The Governor’s budget included $1 million for Specialty Court, enough to get it started and start phasing it in to the areas not currently covered.  Unfortunately, the House Ways and Means Budget did not, potentially stifling this much-needed measure.  As a result, Representative Chris Walsh will file an amendment on April 15 to include $1.2 million and the authorization for statewide housing court in the House budget.  We hope that you will call your Representative and ask them to support his amendment (Don’t know your legislator?  Look them up here).

Estimated Cost$2,400,000
FY17 Governor’s Budget$1,000,000 (to cover the first 6 months)
FY17 House Ways & Means$0
FY17 House FinalHouse budget debate will take place during the week of 4/25
FY17 Senate Ways & Means

Forthcoming

FY17 Senate Final
FY17 Conference Committee
FY17 Final Budget Amount

 

Please keep an eye out for a budget alert next week. We hope that you will take the time to contact your legislators and run through some talking points with them on why this funding is important.  Below are some quick bullet points for you to raise:

MLAC – Line Item 0321-1600

  • Seeking $10 million, for a total of $27 million. The House Ways & Means budget included a $1 million increase.  Representative Ruth Balser is filing an amendment to secure the additional $9 million. Please support her amendment!
  • Provides civil legal aid for indigent individuals for essential life services such as eviction prevention and protection from domestic abuse
  • 64% of qualifying individuals are turned away annually – more than 54,000 individuals
  • Pro se litigants place a burden on the courts and struggle to access justice
  • Civil legal aid is a good investment, providing a positive return on investment by saving the state in areas such as shelter and medical costs.

Trial Court (15 Line Items)

  • Seeking $654 million, $17 million more than included in the House Ways & Means budget. If funding remains at the current proposed level, the Trial Court will have to lay off 300 essential staffers.
  • Despite being chronically underfunded — in the last eight years, while the state budget has increased by 43.3%, funding for the Trial Court has only increased by 7.9% — the courts have made great strides in efficiency. Today they operate at full capacity with 17% fewer employees than in FY02.
  • Lack of funding will stifle innovations and potentially endanger court users. As demonstrated by the module requests, the courts deserve increased funding for programs such as overhauling outdated security systems and expanding the groundbreaking Specialty Court sessions, which provide support and treatment for the issues underlying criminal behavior and have produced great results in reducing recidivism.

Statewide Housing Court Expansion – Line Item 0036-0003

  • Requires $2.4 million to operate yearly, but could ramp up to full capacity with the $1 million proposed by the Governor. Unfortunately, the House Ways & Means budget includes no funding for this initiative.
  • Nearly two-thirds of residents are deprived of this resource. Housing Court is the only forum in the Commonwealth set up to handle code enforcement, evictions, and other housing issues on a daily basis with specialized judges, housing specialists who mediate cases to avoid costly trials, and the Tenancy Preservation Program, providing counseling and intervention for individuals with physical and mental disabilities to prevent homelessness.

Thank you for your help and we hope you will check in again as we continue to keep you updated no the latest budget developments.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association