Access to Justice Commission Restarts

The start of the BBA’s program year and the new SJC session also coincide with the new seating of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission.  Now in its third iteration, the Commission is looking to build on its substantial work.  Last year alone, the Commission accomplished the following (and more!):

  • Legal Services Funding: Supported an increase in appropriations for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), helping achieve a $1 million increase. The BBA was also instrumental in this push, led by the work of Past-President and Chair of the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, D. Smeallie.  The Commission also explored alternative funding sources, especially from federal grants.
  • Increasing Pro Bono: Supported the state’s participation in a new pro bono website, Mass Legal Answers online, org. The Boston Bar Foundation (BBF) is proud to be helping out with funding and the Association is doing its part to educate the bar about the initiative, which promises lawyers the opportunity to provide “pro bono in your PJs.”  The concept is simple: in brief, individuals with legal questions who meet certain requirements, such as income limits, can create an account and enter their legal questions into an online database.  Licensed lawyers interested in pro bono work can also create an account where they can log in to the question repository and select questions to answer.  Check out the site and volunteer!

The Commission also continued to promote [?] pro bono representation, such as through its Access to Justice Fellows Program, which helps facilitate pro bono work by senior and retired attorneys and by expanding the pilot appellate pro bono program statewide.

  • Improving Access to Justice: Worked on revising forms and rules to promote clarity and accessibility for unrepresented litigants.  The Commission also supported statewide expansion of the Housing Court, a movement  the BBA has advocated for as well, to ensure that the roughly 1/3 of the state not covered by the Housing Court gains access to this valuable resource.  Finally, the Commission supported the work of the 100% access national movement, which calls for the development of state justice systems providing self-representing individuals with 100% access to effective assistance in dealing with essential legal problems.
  • Exploring Expanded Roles for Non-Lawyers: Two subcommittees explored the roles for social services providers and non-lawyers generally in the justice system.

Last week, we were privileged to get a preview of the upcoming year for the Commission from Co-Chair and SJC Justice Geraldine Hines, who listed statewide Housing Court expansion, 100% access to justice, continued pro bono efforts, and implementation of Mass Legal Answers Online as some of the major initiatives for the 2016-17 Commission.  She explained that she felt the Commission’s biggest challenges were in establishing a pilot program for non-lawyer advocates in court and in working with the courts to balance convenience with privacy protection with the release of the uniform rule regarding online access to court records, an issue with which the BBA has been very involved.

The Non-Lawyer Roles Committee is working to find the best way to have non-lawyers appear in court on behalf of indigent clients.  Justice Hines explained that some of their concerns include who should train and supervise the service providers, whether they need to be licensed in some way, and how to address rules that limit legal practice to those who passed the bar.  They also need to consider how to protect the public from malpractice and whether non-lawyer practitioners could have greater impact in certain courts where it could be especially unlikely or difficult for someone to otherwise secure representation.

On September 22, the Commission held its first meeting of the new program year. We were pleased to hear updates on MLAC’s application for a grant from the Massachusetts Office for Victims Assistance (MOVA) under the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), and that the goal of 100% access was likely to be included in the Trial Court’s forthcoming Strategic Plan 2.0 for formalized consideration and implementation by the courts.  We were excited to see a presentation by Rochelle Hahn of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) on Mass Legal Answers Online, demonstrating its operation and functionality for both lawyers and advice-seekers.  It promises to be an easy and efficient way to match those in need of advice with those who can provide it, requiring minimal effort from either side.  In addition, the ABA is providing malpractice insurance for participants.

Finally, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners, Marilyn Wellington, presented on the implementation of an access to justice question on the Massachusetts bar exam and the 2018 transition to the uniform bar exam.  Massachusetts became the first state in the country to add access to justice to its bar exam when the SJC approved a rule to require a question on the topic in 2014, and the July 2016 exam was the first to incorporate it.  As Wellington explained, the rule requires that at least one essay question be on the topic of access to justice, and it can also be incorporated into other questions.

While the results are not due out until mid-October, the question is already having an impact as Wellington reported anecdotally that she has heard from local law schools that they have added classes or course components on access to justice as a means to preparing their students for this element of the exam and educating them on these important issues.

However, the Massachusetts bar exam will soon undergo changes as the Board of Bar Examiners recently announced that it will be adopting the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE), effective in 2018.  The UBE tests only generally accepted legal principles—not state-specific law.  Massachusetts is the 25th state to adopt it, and its hallmarks include a greater focus on practice-readiness and the ability for test-takers to apply for admission in any of the states in which it is used, giving them more flexibility.  While the UBE does not currently include an access to justice question, Commissioners discussed the possibility of reaching out to the test makers about the possibility of adding the topic in the future.  In the meantime, Wellington announced that Massachusetts is looking into requiring a pre-admission online course on state law and including access to justice issues.

All this and it’s still only September!  We can’t wait to see how these items develop over the year and look forward to keeping you in the loop on all of the Commission’s work over the course of the year.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association