With the House Ways and Means Committee set to release their budget recommendation around April 12, the BBA is ramping up our own budget advocacy, calling for adequate funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) and the Trial Court, including statewide expansion of the Housing Court, and help for the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) in meeting their constitutional mandate to provide legal representation to the indigent. This week, we’re sending a letter to the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Brian Dempsey, explaining why adequate funding in these areas is necessary.
Below, we offer an update on our budget priorities and share how you can get involved:
Funding for MLAC and civil legal aid is as crucial as ever because legal aid directly touches so many of the biggest social issues impacting residents of the Commonwealth today, including homelessness and emergency shelter, immigration, domestic violence, and the opioid crisis. MLAC projections reveal that in 2017, MLAC-funded legal aid programs will receive over 89,500 requests for legal services. And, as indicated by the findings of the Investing in Justice Report by the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid, providers will be forced to turn away nearly two-thirds of those requests from qualified applicants as a result of a lack of resources.
These projections, of course, do not take into account the recent threats to federal civil legal aid funding. President Trump’s first proposed federal budget calls for the complete elimination of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and its $385 million in federal appropriations for civil legal aid. At the state level, this would mean MLAC would lose more than $5 million in federal funding and nearly 26,000 low-income Massachusetts residents would be left without legal assistance. Plus another $4 – $5 million in federal funding for civil legal aid would be lost by other programs, making the total civil legal aid funding lost in Massachusetts close to $10 million. The projected demand of 89,500 cases would likely rise significantly as well if that federal budget were enacted, as other social support services are likewise at risk of losing federal funding.
(You can learn about the federal budget and budget advocacy at the federal level by listening to this Federal Budget Process 101 podcast, and our earlier podcast on the state budget process focused on civil legal aid in particular.)
As we’ve reported many times before, the Investing in Justice Report also found that civil legal aid is a smart investment as it saves the state money on “back-end” costs such as emergency shelter, foster care, and health care. In fact, according to MLAC’s most recent report on the economic benefits of legal aid, legal assistance for low-income residents resulted in over $49 million of total income and savings for the Commonwealth in FY16 alone. Specifically, the report shows that legal aid led to $12.1 million in cost savings on social services for the state, $15.9 million in federal revenue entering the Commonwealth, and $21.2 million in benefits for residents.
The BBA supports MLAC’s ask for a $5 million increase in funding, for a total of $23 million in the FY18 budget, which would allow MLAC-funded civil legal aid programs to open at least 4,000 new cases, assisting an estimated 10,300 additional low-income clients and their family members. Be sure to check out MLAC’s helpful issue-specific breakdowns on the importance of legal aid in Housing, Employment, Immigration and Domestic Violence cases. We hope that you will join the BBA in supporting civil legal aid by reaching out to your State Senator and Representative to ask them to support MLAC’s budget request. If you don’t know your legislator, look them up here, and if you’re not sure what to say, refer to these handy talking points and keep an ear out for a future Issue Spot Podcast on How to Talk to Your Legislators.
The Trial Court, which is made up of seven court departments, handles the vast majority of cases in the Commonwealth, and as a result, acts as the primary point of contact for nearly all Massachusetts residents who are seeking resolution of a legal issue. In order to ensure the efficient operation of the judicial system and fair, impartial, and equal access to justice, it is essential that the Trial Court receive adequate funding.
Over the last few years, the Trial Court has made great strides in finding ways to work smarter and leverage technological advancements to get more done with less money and less staff. Their current request for maintenance funding of 6,359 positions represents a decrease of 161 positions below the FY2016 staffing and a 19% reduction since FY02. Despite these efforts, the Trial Court still has a major need for increased funding to sustain and continue the progress made in recent years.
As we’ve outlined, the Governor provided for about a 1% across-the-board increase in Trial Court appropriations, for a total of $646.8 million, which was slightly less than the court’s original maintenance budget request of $649.5 million but quite short of the revised request that accounts for the $11.7 million in pay raises that must be implemented as a result of the pay package that passed earlier this year. The Trial Court’s revised funding request for FY18, $661,368,224, would support a number of modules necessary to maintain a well-functioning court system, from IT updates to programs related to Alternative Dispute Resolution and Transition Age Probation. In addition, the Trial Court’s facilities are in dire need of security system upgrades, which are necessary to preserve the safety of court employees, users, and the general public, ensuring the Trial Court remains effective and accessible for all residents of the Commonwealth.
Statewide Housing Court
An especially striking example of the Trial Court’s work to improve both access and efficiency is the plan to expand Housing Court jurisdiction to the whole state. As we’ve mentioned in the past, Housing Court offers a number of key benefits, including operating as the only forum in the Commonwealth capable of handling all housing matters, from code enforcement to eviction proceedings, on a daily basis. Housing Court judges are exceedingly well-versed in all aspects of housing law, an area that can be quite complex, and have the specialized expertise to analyze federal, state and local laws on housing. Additionally, parties in the Housing Court have access to Housing Specialists, who mediate cases, facilitate settlements, and even provide on-site reviews to resolve issues with housing conditions. This, and programs like Lawyer for the Day, also make Housing Court especially adept at handling pro se litigants.
Currently, about one-third of the State does not have access to Housing Court, meaning litigants in those areas must take their matters to District Court, where they wait in line behind a full range of civil and criminal cases and eventually appear before judges who hear only an occasional housing matter. Some municipalities outside of Housing Court jurisdiction find that it’s not always worth sending code-enforcement officers into District Court because of the necessary time commitment. Parties also lack access to the Housing Specialists and therefore may miss an opportunity to settle and avoid the need, and expense, of trying the matter in court. In FY16, there were 27,487 eviction cases filed in the Housing Courts and a statewide expansion would allow the Court to increase its eviction caseload by approximately 6,000 cases.
Plus, the Housing Court is a model of efficiency, featuring the lowest cost per case of any Trial Court department. The Housing Court also offers programs like the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP) – a unique intervention that enables trained counselors to assist with services in cases involving persons with disabilities, ultimately helping in preventing homelessness. Currently, conservative estimates show that the TPP saves the state from spending between $4 million and $8 million in shelter costs annually, and if Housing Court is expanded statewide, the TPP could save the state an additional $1.8 million.
While the $1 million earmarked to cover the expansion in the Governor’s budget is a good start, an allocation of $1.2 million would ensure the successful statewide expansion. Earlier this month, Representative Chris Walsh sent a letter to the House Ways and Means Committee, signed onto by 42 other Representatives, urging them to include the full $1.2 million in the FY18 Budget. In addition, Senator Spilka and Representative Walsh have refiled bills, both referred to the Judiciary Committee, for the Housing Court expansion.
If you want to join the BBA in advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court, refer to these resources and reach out to your legislators! Listen up for a future podcast on the Housing Court where we’ll take you behind the scenes with a visit to Lawyer for the Day and a conversation with a Housing Court Judge.
As the agency responsible for representing those unable to afford an attorney in all matters where the right to appointed counsel attaches, CPCS plays a huge role in our justice system. The way that their state funding is appropriated adds to that burden, requiring them to seek additional money each year to cover shortfalls.
This year, CPCS is seeking $244 million to provide maintenance-level services in the coming year, plus $14.3 million to cover additional initiatives, with most of that earmarked for much-needed increases in the hourly rates paid to private assigned counsel, which have not been changed in 12 years, and increases to the base salaries of CPCS staff attorneys, as recommended in the recent report of a gubernatorial commission (on which the BBA sat).
We encourage you to contact your elected representatives on Beacon Hill regarding all of these BBA budget priorities. As noted above, we’ll be posting a podcast shortly on How to Talk to Your Legislators.
We’ll be checking in with more budget updates as the process unfolds, and if you need a refresher on the budget process generally, head over to our Geeking Out on the State Budget Podcast.
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association