Let the BBA Budget Advocacy Begin!

It’s that time of year when our budget priorities become a focus here in the Government Relations Department of the Boston Bar Association (BBA). With Governor Charlie Baker’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2019 (FY19) to be released next week, we wanted to offer a refresher and a preview on what we’ll be focusing on in the coming months. First, though, make sure you’ve cleared your calendar for next Thursday’s annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid (more below)!

Trial Court

As usual, we’ll be urging, at each step of the budget process (from the Governor’s initial budget to the House to the Senate to the Conference Committee and back to the Governor), for adequate funding for the Trial Court appropriation. 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 FY16 staffing level and a 19% reduction since FY02. Despite these efforts, and even with steady increases in funding from the Governor and Legislature, the Trial Court still has a major need for increased funding to sustain and continue the progress made in recent years. 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.

This year, we are advocating for the Trial Court’s requested maintenance-level appropriation of $671.2 million—which represents an increase of nearly 3% over the current fiscal year—plus any necessary increases that may result from collective-bargaining negotiations.

Housing Court

We were thrilled to report that, following four years of advocacy led by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and supported by the BBA, statewide expansion of the Housing Court finally became a reality in the Commonwealth when both $1 million in funding and authorizing language were included in the FY18 Budget. This expansion means that the 84 cities and towns that previously lacked access—representing nearly a third of the state’s population— now enjoy the many advantages Housing Court has to offer.

As we’ve reported on, many times over, the Housing Court offers many significant benefits, including judges who have specialized knowledge on all, often complex, housing law matters, and housing specialists, who help tenants and landlords settle and mediate cases, saving the time and costs associated with litigation. Another key benefit of the Housing Court is the Lawyer for the Day Program, which has offered, since 1999, free advice, mediation, and case litigation on “eviction day” for unrepresented tenants and landlords that cannot otherwise afford legal assistance. Also, the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP) provides a unique intervention that enables trained counselors to assist with services in cases involving persons with disabilities, helping to prevent homelessness and shelter stays. All of these advantages ultimately make the Housing Court a true example of efficiency, featuring the lowest cost per case of any Trial Court Department.

Implementation of the expansion is now underway, and the search has begun for two new judges and a Clerk Magistrate, and Barnstable, Middlesex, Norfolk, Dukes, Nantucket, and Suffolk counties are all expanding the Housing Court to every resident within their jurisdiction. In order for the full gamut of benefits to be expanded statewide, the Housing Court must be adequately staffed and include the important parallel expansion of programs like the TPP and Lawyer for the Day. As such, we are asking the Governor to include $2.6 million in the FY19 Budget to ensure the expansion, including the creation of a new sixth division, runs smoothly and the Housing Court remains a model of efficiency. An additional $500,000 appropriation for the TPP line-item (7004-3045) would allow for the hiring of 7.5 full time TPP providers, so that program, too, can expand statewide. Plus, estimates show that TPP saves the state between $5.5 and $11 million in shelter costs, and a thorough TPP expansion could result in an additional $2.5 – $5 million in savings.

CPCS

This year, we will also be urging, as usual, adequate and timely funding for the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), which plays a vital role in our judicial system, providing representation to indigent persons in criminal and civil cases and administrative proceedings, in keeping with the right to counsel under our laws and the Constitution. Adequate funding would help CPCS to increase salaries of their staff attorneys, who are woefully underpaid in comparison to their colleagues in other states, and to attorneys of similar experience in the executive branch. This is not merely our conclusion but that of the Commission to Study Compensation of Assistant District Attorneys and Staff Attorneys of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. The BBA supports the Commission’s 2015 recommendation that minimum salaries for these attorneys be increased, over time, to match the corresponding minimums for executive branch attorneys, and increased funding for CPCS would be a significant and beneficial step in that direction.

CPCS funding in the FY19 budget is especially critical because the state faces what the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court has called a “constitutional emergency.” In cases where a child is facing removal from parental custody, the parents and children have a right to representation at a hearing within 72 hours. There are too few attorneys taking up these cases, and as a result, children and parents, especially in the western parts of the state, are being denied their constitutional right to a timely hearing. Adequate funding would allow CPCS to increase compensation for bar advocates, or private attorneys who defend indigent clients, which would help to find attorneys willing to take on these tough cases and protect the constitutional rights of these parents and children.

MLAC

Last, but certainly not least, each year we focus on adequate funding for civil legal aid through the MLAC line-item. MLAC was level-funded in the FY18 budget, for a total appropriation of $18 million. This year, we are supporting MLAC’s ask for a $5 million increase in the line-item for a total appropriation of $23 million.

In 2014, the BBA’s Investing in Justice report underlined the great need for increased civil legal aid funding when it revealed that each year, MLAC-funded legal services programs are forced to turn away nearly two-thirds of qualified applicants. Unfortunately, due to shortages in funding and increasing demand, approximately 45,000 otherwise eligible individuals are turned away each year in Massachusetts. In addition, changes in federal policies on issues such as immigration, as well as proposed reductions in funding to the leading federal provider of legal service programs, the Legal Services Corporation, threaten to increase this demand even further—just as continuing challenges like the opioid crisis and emerging issues like the resettlement of individuals impacted by Hurricane Maria and other natural disasters add to the burden borne by legal services. Unfortunately, when one is unable to access legal services, the consequences can be devastating, as often one’s family, home, health, and job may be at stake in civil legal matters.

In light of this ever-expanding need, and the devastating consequences, it is vital that the state adequately fund civil legal aid programs in the Commonwealth. Fortunately, as Investing in Justice established, legal aid actually pays for itself, and more, by saving the state money on “back-end” costs such as emergency shelter, foster care, and health care. A $5 million increase in the MLAC line-item would enable programs to hire 31 additional attorneys, 8 additional paralegals, 6 support staff, and assist more than 7,500 low-income residents of the Commonwealth.

As you likely know, the budget advocacy for MLAC and civil legal aid ramps up each January with one of the largest lobby days of the year: Walk to the Hill. At this event hundreds of attorneys converge on the State House to demonstrate their support for civil legal aid. The event kicks off with speeches from Chief Justice Ralph Gants, President of the BBA Mark Smith, President of the MBA Chris Sullivan, and a client who benefited from legal services, and concludes with the attorneys heading out to speak with their own state senators and representatives. We hope to see you all at the State House on January 25 at 11am for this important event, and we strongly encourage you to stick around for the meetings with lawmakers. Rallying at Walk to the Hill and meeting with legislators immediately afterward offer the best opportunity for BBA members and the legal community as a whole to convince the Legislature of the importance of civil legal aid.

If you don’t know your legislators, you can look them up here, and if you’re not sure what to say, refer to these handy talking points or listen to our Issue Spot Podcast on How to Talk to Your Legislators. If you’d like a quick refresher day-of, join us here at the BBA at 9:30am for our Annual Pre-Walk Breakfast, where we’ll review the budget ask and key talking points.

As our budget advocacy gets underway, there will be plenty of opportunities beyond Walk to the Hill for you to join us in advocating for our priorities, which will help to ensure access to justice for all residents of the Commonwealth and an efficient and effective judicial system. Watch for e-alerts coming your way, asking you to reach out (again) to your elected officials at key points in the process during budget season! In the meantime, you can learn about the state budget process by listening to this podcast focused on civil legal aid in particular, and about the federal budget and budget advocacy at that level from our Federal Budget Process 101 podcast.

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association