A2J Update: Legal Services Corporation Comes to Cambridge; Equal Justice Coalition Previews 2019 Budget Campaign for BBA Council

Last week, we updated you on the Third Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and its year ahead. This week, we are continuing the access to justice theme by offering recaps of two civil legal aid-oriented items: the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) hosted its quarterly board meeting in Cambridge and the Equal Justice Coalition stopped by the BBA Council to preview the upcoming budget campaign and Walk to the Hill in January.

LSC Quarterly Board Meeting

Four times a year, the LSC convenes its Board in cities across the country, and this week, the Board of Directors Quarterly Meeting came to Cambridge. As you may know, the LSC is the nation’s leading funder of civil legal aid programs, with an annual appropriation of $385 million. Here in Massachusetts, we receive approximately $5 million, distributed to four different providers of legal aid. For years, the LSC has been level-funded, while the need for legal services has increased significantly. The LSC found, in its 2017 Justice Gap Report, that 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help, and our own Investing in Justice Task Force report found that, here in Massachusetts, approximately two-thirds of qualified individuals must be turned away due to a lack of resources.

Each year, the BBA President and President-Elect head to Washington, D.C., as part of ABA Day, to advocate for LSC funding. This past year, that ask felt especially important as the White House had proposed zeroing out the full LSC line-item. Even as a state that doesn’t rely on LSC funds for the majority of its civil legal aid funding, a $5 million cut to legal services would represent a massive hit to the Commonwealth, especially since it would likely go hand-in-hand with cuts in other services that only drive up the need for legal services. Thankfully, Congress chose to level-fund LSC for the remainder of the year. As the 2018 budget talks begin again, however, the situation remains uncertain. For a crash course on the federal budget process, especially as it relates to legal aid funding, be sure to listen to our Issue Spot podcast, The Federal Budget Process 101.

Forum on Access to Justice

The Forum, consisting of four distinguished panels, highlighted access to justice issues from a range of angles.

First up, a panel entitled “Natural Disasters, Legal Aid, and the Justice System,” convened Moderator Judge Jonathan Lipmann, who was the Chief Judge of New York during Hurricane Sandy, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht of the Supreme Court of Texas, where Hurricane Harvey recently hit, and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, of the Florida Supreme Court, where Hurricane Irma recently hit. You can view this full panel, along with those mentioned below, on the LSC Facebook Page.

Both Justices spoke of the need for court systems to prepare as much as possible for all types of disasters but also to remain flexible to adapt to each particular situation. They highlighted the legal challenges facing the judiciary in these moments of crisis, some of which can be addressed by administrative orders, like those related to statutes of limitations or speedy trials, while others require legislative fixes or public education, to inform impacted communities of their rights and where they can access legal services if they need them. In relation to education, the Justices also stressed the new role of social media and highlighted the need for courts to ensure their communication plans are updated and adaptive to these types of events. They additionally spoke on the role of legal aid organizations, noting that these providers will bear the brunt of the burden in addressing recovery as these disasters will cause the demand for civil legal services to greatly increase.

Finally, the Justices also mentioned the role that the bar can play in these moments, pointing to the associations as a source of access to attorneys and a centralized point of communication. Texas waived the admission requirements for pro bono attorneys licensed to practice law in a different state but seeking to help victims of Hurricane Harvey. Interestingly, the ABA’s Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness has established resources, policies, and information for the legal community, including a list of resources for bar associations.

The other panel discussions also addressed significant access to justice issues facing both the country and Massachusetts in particular. For example, “The Importance of Access to Justice to American Business” panel drew General Counsel from a range of companies like GE and Raytheon, including former BBA President Paul Dacier, formerly of EMC Corporation and now of Indigo Agriculture. Last week, we mentioned the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission’s work on the Justice for All Project, and the Panel entitled “The Justice for All Project: An Overview,” provided a macro look at the goals of this national project and a local take with Chief Justice Ralph Gants offering insights into the Massachusetts-specific undertaking. Finally, deans from seven law schools, including BBA Council member Dean Vincent D. Rougeau, of Boston College Law School, discussed “Law Schools’ Work and Access to Justice,” highlighting what schools can do to foster students who choose law school activities and careers that prioritize increasing access to justice.

Following these enlightening panel discussions, the LSC hosted a Pro Bono Awards Reception, honoring attorneys who have devoted significant time and energy to pursuing projects at LSC-funded legal aid organizations, including Susan Finegan of Mintz Levin, a former BBA Council member and member of our Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid, for her work with Volunteers Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association (VLP), Michael Castner for his work with South Coastal Counties Legal Services, Norma Mercedes for her work with Northeast Legal Aid, the law firm Community Legal Aid, and a posthumous award for Terrell “Terry” Iandiorio for his work with VLP.

We were thrilled that President-Elect Jonathan Albano was invited to speak before the awards were presented. These remarks followed an interesting update by Dean Andy Perlman of Suffolk University Law School, who spoke on his work as Chair of the Governing Council of the ABA Center on Innovation. Jon Albano noted that though pro bono would never be enough to fully bridge the justice gap, it was more crucial than ever given the uncertain federal funding forecast and the expanding legal needs of many vulnerable communities. The work of the honorees and others, who devote their time to pro bono efforts, expands the reach of those legal aid organizations that offer civil justice for individuals facing dire circumstances, from eviction, to domestic violence, to deportation, to the loss of necessary health care services and other public benefits. Here at the BBA we have long understood the critical importance of pro bono work in expanding access to justice through our legal system and support that work by training and educating volunteer attorneys who make the commitment to take on those cases.

EJC Addresses BBA Council 

In addition to our work expanding and promoting pro bono work and federal legal aid funding, we also, as you are well aware, advocate for adequate legal funding at the state level. As this advocacy begins for the coming year, the BBA Council was fortunate to be joined by Chair of the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC), Louis Tompros of WilmerHale, and Director of the EJC, Laura Booth. Louis and Laura offered an overview of the current state of funding in the Commonwealth and a preview of the EJC FY19 budget campaign for adequate Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) funding. Specifically, they highlighted the need for increased funding for MLAC, given recent federal actions, including expanded immigration enforcement, which will increase demand for civil legal services. They also offered helpful insights into just how one goes about discussing this need for funding with legislators, which was also the theme of a podcast last year, featuring Louis himself.

A key piece of this budget advocacy is the annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid when, each January, hundreds of attorneys head to the State House for one of the largest lobby days in the Commonwealth. These attorneys hear speeches from the judiciary, the bar, and those helped by legal aid funding and then head out to speak to their legislators, urging them to protect state funding for programs that provide civil legal aid to low-income Massachusetts residents.

Louis and Laura brought a few specific requests in relation to this important event, which will take place on January 25, 2018. First up, they stressed just how important a major turnout is in signaling the continued importance of civil legal aid to Massachusetts representatives and senators. Second, they stressed that even more important is ensuring that all those who took the effort to attend, actually head out to speak to their own legislators, and/or their staff. This day is most effective when legislators hear from many of their own constituents about the importance of MLAC funding from a local level. Finally, Louis and Laura stressed the importance of fully utilizing social media this year, which will help to get out the word about the importance of civil legal aid generally, and encourage more people to join the call for civil legal aid funding.

For a full rundown of just how important this effort is, check out this post, and be sure to read and listen to recaps of last year’s Walk to the Hill and stay tuned for how you can get involved. If you are interested in learning more, feel free to contact me at adaniel@bostonbar.org . Or reach out to the EJC for information about finding, or starting, your own team.

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association