This week, the Third Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission (Mass A2J Commission) hosts its first meeting of the new Commission year, looking to continue and expand efforts to ensure access to justice (A2J) for low-income residents of the Commonwealth.
A Brief History
In September 2004, the Massachusetts State Planning Board for Civil Legal Services recommended the formation of a Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission in order “to provide leadership, vision and coordination to the multitude of organizations and interests involved in assuring access to civil justice for the low-income families and individuals in the Commonwealth.” The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) accepted this invitation and created the Mass A2J Commission by order on February 28, 2005.
The Court gave the First Commission a five-year mandate (2005 – 2010) to conducts its activities and appointed 21 members from judiciary, the private bar, law schools, and legal services and social services agencies. Former Chief Justice Herbert P. Wilkins served as chair and attorney James T. Van Buren served as co-chair. The First Commission had a number of key accomplishments, including production of a report analyzing the barriers to A2J in the Commonwealth, research on the roles that social service organizations and the executive branch play in providing and expanding access to justice to low-income individuals, and thorough study of the civil delivery system across the network of relevant stakeholders.
The Court appointed 23 members to the Second Commission and Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants and attorney David W. Rosenberg served as co-chairs of the Commission over its five year mandate from 2010 – 2015. The Second Commission continued the work of the First and also made a significant number of new accomplishments, including adoption of a $51 “Access to Justice Fee,” as a voluntary contribution to the Massachusetts IOLTA Committee with the annual attorney registration fee; a study of court service centers as a tool for unrepresented litigants and the launch of successful pilot centers in the Brooke Courthouse in Boston and in Greenfield; and development of the Legal Resource Finder, which allows litigants to learn whether they are eligible for legal services and how to seek help if so.
The Current Commission
The Third Commission, which will run until 2020, is composed of 30 members and was chaired by former Associate Justice Geraldine S. Hines and Susan M. Finegan until Justice Hines’ retirement this year. Chief Justice Ralph Gants will step in as co-chair for the remainder for the Commission’s term. This Commission adopted a mission statement centered on five priorities:
- Increasing justice by improving the effectiveness of, and the funding for, civil legal services organizations;
- Increasing services provided by private attorneys;
- Improving assistance to unrepresented litigants;
- Improving access to justice beyond the courts, such as in administrative agencies; and
- Exploring the role of non-lawyers in the provision of appropriate civil legal assistance.
Only two-fifths into its mandate, the Commission has already had some significant victories, including receipt of one of seven Public Welfare Foundation/Justice for All grants to states for development of a strategic action plan for improving access to justice throughout the Commonwealth, expansion of the civil appeals pro bono program to cover the entire Commonwealth, and continued development of the Access to Justice Fellow program where 74 returned lawyers and judges have offered over 76,000 hours of pro bono in the past five years.
This past year alone the Commission accomplished a few of their priorities, including statewide expansion of the Housing Court, which we’ve also been calling for over the past three years. This means that one-third of the state will no longer be denied access to this critical resource, which offers judges that are experts in housing law and other benefits, like Housing Specialists, who mediate cases and save litigants time and money.
In addition, the Commission endorsed the report of the Access to Attorneys Committee, chaired by attorneys Joel Feldman and Mary Lu Bilek. The Committee met over 18 months to investigate and recommend ways in which the private bar could meet the legal needs of litigants who cannot retain an attorney. The Final Report recommended the Commission and the Commonwealth do a number of things, including:
- “strongly support efforts to expand the right to counsel where the most essential needs of low income litigants are at stake,
- further investigate apparent obstacles to the use of fee shifting to serve low income litigants by analyzing existing data decisions in the Housing and Probate Courts,
- track usage of LAR in Mass Courts and provide consistent LAR information at Court Services Center, and
- include LAR and fee shifting components as part of the Practicing with Professionalism seminar required of all law school graduates.”
The Year Ahead
As mentioned, the Mass A2J Commission first 2017 – 2018 Meeting takes place today, and the agenda if full of exciting developments that will shape the year ahead. First up, the Commission will welcome Chief Justice Gants as returning Co-Chair as well as a Laura Gal, who is the new consultant to the Commission.
The meeting, and coming year, will also focus on the current progress of the Justice for All Project mentioned above. The grant, awarded in November 2016 involves assessing the current resources available to assist those Massachusetts residents who cannot afford a lawyer for essential legal needs and producing a statewide plan to bridge those gaps in services. Over the spring of 2017, regional meetings were held across the state, and in June, a statewide conference was convened at Harvard to further develop creation of the strategic plan. Following these meetings, working groups divided by the issue areas of consumer debt, housing, family, and ecosystem were formed to develop the plan and produce potential pilot projects for the year ahead. We are looking forward to following and participating in the continued evolution of this project.
The Greater Boston Immigrant Defense Fund is also on the agenda for today’s meeting. As we reported last month, the Fund is a the product of private funding through foundations and law firms, facilitated through partnership between the City of Boston, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. The Fund will work to protect and support Boston’s immigrant and refugee communities by increasing access to legal representation to indigent individuals in deportation proceedings in Immigration Court as well as community education and preparedness programing like know-your-rights trainings. Through the Boston Bar Foundation’s grant-making mechanism, we are acutely aware of the critical need and importance of providing legal representation in the area of immigration law.
With applications for funding now under review, we are looking forward to learning more about what the Commission plans to do to ensure the success of this important Fund and how members of the bar can be involved!
Another key item on today’s agenda is the recently-announced $8.3 million two-year Office for Victim Assistance (MOVA) grant obtained by MLAC to increase access to civil legal services for victims of violent and economic crimes in Massachusetts. Victims of crime are often left with significant civil legal needs related to things like child custody, health care, housing, and immigration. MLAC will, working in partnership with MLRI, disburse the funds to regional and statewide civil legal aid programs, and the Commission, which helped to spearhead this grant application will undoubtedly be working hard in the coming year to ensure the project runs smoothly and efficiently.
Yesterday’s statement announcing the Grant noted the BBA’s own Investing in Justice report, which highlighted the importance of investing in civil legal aid services and demonstrated the costs saved with such investments. In that statement, BBA President Mark Smith said:
“The BBA’s study demonstrated that providing civil legal aid to the vulnerable is not only the right thing to do but also provides the Commonwealth with a return on investment. This generous grant from MOVA will help expand access to justice for victims at a critical moment in their lives.”
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association