Walk to the Hill 2017: Rallying for Civil Legal Aid

As you may know, our Legislative and Public Policy Manager, Jonny Schreiber, has moved on, so I’m stepping up to pen this week’s Issue Spot.  What better way to honor Jonny than to choose as this week’s subject Walk to the Hill, the annual lobby day for civil legal aid?  Of course, funding for civil legal aid is always one of the BBA’s annual priorities, but thanks to the work Jonny did in helping shape the report of our Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, we have an even stronger argument to make.

And what better place to make that case than at Walk to the Hill on January 26, from 11 to 1?  This event—sponsored by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and the Equal Justice Coalition, regularly draws hundreds of attorneys to the State House’s Great Hall, and we are hoping for a record turnout this year!

There will be speeches from BBA President Carol Starkey, the president of the MBA, clients with stories of how they’re lives were changed with the help of a legal-aid attorney, and SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants—who each year tries to outdo himself in coming up with examples to demonstrate how a relatively-small increase in the overall state budget can have such a meaningful impact on the neediest among us.

Of course, civil legal aid is an issue that affects every legislative district in Massachusetts: Every legislator has many constituents who not only qualify for legal aid (typically based on age or income) but rely on it at critical moments, such as when facing eviction or trying to secure their rightful benefits.  As a result, the level of support for civil legal aid in the Legislature is very high, and Walk to the Hill always brings out many elected representatives.

As for the rest of them, we are counting on you to help remind, and educate, them about the issue, and in particular the need for increased funding.  After the initial registration and the speaking program (and did I mention the boxed lunch?), attorneys fan out to various legislative offices in the State House to meet with their respective Senators and Representatives.

Are you unsure about sitting down (or, in some cases, standing up, because there are more attorneys than chairs!) to talk with your elected officials about legal aid?  We’ve got you covered: We’ll send you off from the Great Hall with guidance on talking points and a packet full of information, both for you and for your representatives.

But just to get you started thinking about it, here are the key findings of our Task Force’s 2014 report (full text here):

  • 64% of individuals who qualify for legal aid (for a family of four, that means an income of less than $30,000 annually) and make it through the wait (roughly 50% of callers give up after being on hold for hours) are nevertheless turned away, solely due to a lack of adequate funding.
    • That means of thousands are turned away every year, which is especially concerning in areas of basic need such as housing evictions and escaping domestic violence.
  • Court procedures are bogged down, and justice is frequently delayed or denied, due to the glut of pro se litigants.
  • For every dollar spent on legal aid in the areas of domestic violence, federal benefits, and housing, the state and its residents see returns of $2 to $5, mostly on back-end savings such as shelter, police, and medical costs.

On the strength of these findings, the BBA, the EJC, and our other partners in this effort were able to secure a 20% increase in state funding for MLAC over the past two years, from $15 million to $18 million.  It is a measure of how effective our advocacy has been, and how much legislators and the Governor care about this issue, that these gains have come at a time of great fiscal pressure, when most other line-items were seeing limited, if any, increases.

Still, the budget forecast for the coming year is looking no better, and we must keep up our work.  For Fiscal Year 2018, which starts on July 1, we are asking for a $5 million increase, which would bring the MLAC line-item appropriation up to $23 million.  As it happens, the Governor will be releasing his budget proposal (which is the first big step in the budget process) the day before, so we’ll have a better idea by then of where we stand as the debate shifts to the Legislature.  (By the way, if you’d like to learn more about Walk to the Hill, funding for MLAC, and the budget process generally, check out our recent Issue Spot podcast on these topics, featuring me and Jonny Schreiber.)

What’s that?  A lunch program and visits to legislative offices aren’t enough for you?  Then why don’t you also join us for our annual Walk to the Hill breakfast, sponsored by our Solo & Small Firm and New Lawyers Sections.  The breakfast (that’s two free meals in one day!) is held here at 16 Beacon from 8.30 to 10.30am, so you can eat, network, and get psyched up for a day of advocacy.

Now that you’re armed with all this info, we hope we’ll see you on January 26th for the biggest Walk to the Hill yet.  If you’re able to attend, don’t forget to fill out your exit report on the way out, so we can tally up all the legislative visits and better plan our strategies for the rest of the campaign!  If you can’t make it, watch for more updates in this space, and in other BBA alerts, about how you can weigh in with your Senator and Representative.

We look forward to keeping you up to date on all the latest developments in the FY18 budget campaign.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association