We hope you’ve already marked your calendar for one of the state’s biggest lobby days: Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid on January 24. On this day each year, hundreds of attorneys head to the State House to hear speeches from the judiciary, the bar, and those helped by legal aid funding, grab lunch, and then spread out to speak to their legislators, urging them to protect state funding for programs that provide civil legal aid to low-income Massachusetts residents.
As usual, we’ll also be hosting our annual breakfast, where you can look up your legislators, learn more about how to speak to them about civil legal aid, and join us for the short walk across the street to Great Hall of the State House for the start of the event. Keep reading to learn more about why this event is so important and what the Equal Justice Coalition will be requesting in the Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) Budget.
The Importance of Civil Legal Aid
Each year, advocating for adequate funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), the largest provider of funding for legal services in the state, is one of our highest legislative priorities. In 2014, the BBA’s Investing in Justice report underlined the great need for increased civil legal aid funding when it revealed that MLAC-funded legal services programs are forced to turn away nearly two-thirds of qualified applicants.
Legal aid providers offer critical assistance in a range of matters, including immigration, housing, employment, domestic violence, and health care. The expertise of legal services attorneys helps resolve matters before they become a crisis. 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. The consequences extend beyond individuals and families as well. That same Investing in Justice report included a survey of judges and found that 60% of those who responded felt the lack of representation negatively impacted the court’s ability to ensure equal justice to unrepresented litigants. So our whole system of justice suffers when civil legal aid is not adequately funded.
Fortunately, our Investing in Justice report revealed more than just the great need for the aid and the consequences of underfunding. The report shows that 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. For every additional dollar spent to combat homelessness and domestic violence, the return to the state is two dollars and for every additional dollar spent in legal aid to assist Massachusetts recover federal benefits, the return to the economy is close to five dollars. MLAC estimates that in FY17, the work of the fourteen MLAC-funded civil legal programs offered an overall economic benefit of $59.2 million to the Commonwealth.
A recent report by the Philadelphia Bar Association reinforces the far-reaching benefits of funding civil legal aid—both to individuals and families facing civil legal matters, and to state and local governments. The study estimates that in housing cases alone, Philadelphia could save $45 million a year by investing $3.5 million to provide legal counsel to low-income tenants facing evictions. The study found that tenants who lacked legal representation in eviction cases faced outcomes that resulted in “disruptive displacement” around 78% of the time; with legal counsel, that number dropped to 5%. Yet, tenants were represented in only 7% of eviction cases during the study period; landlords, meanwhile, were represented in 80% of cases. This stark difference in outcomes when tenants are represented versus unrepresented suggests that those without means simply are not seeing meaningful protection of their rights by the legal system—this should be of deep concern to all of us who care about justice, even without the economic benefits.
Philadelphia spends millions of dollars annually on social services associated with the fallout of evictions, including the need for shelter and emergency housing services, exacerbated physical and mental health issues, job loss, and others. Thus, the investment in ensuring better outcomes for tenants in housing cases—whether by preserving tenancies, or by negotiating move-out terms that maintain a higher level of housing and financial stability for tenants—is estimated to save the city $12.74 for every dollar invested in civil legal aid. The report notes that this figure is conservative; many of the societal benefits of maintaining family and community stability are not easily quantifiable.
The Budget Ask
Last year, you may recall, that we asked for a $5 million increase in the MLAC budget-item for a total appropriation of $23 million. In a big victory for civil legal aid, MLAC received a $3 million increase for a $21 million appropriation. This will enable MLAC-funded programs to assist thousands more qualified Massachusetts residents while saving the state money elsewhere in the budget.
Unfortunately, demand also continues to rise and the turn-away rates have thus remained stubbornly high, even through several generous funding increases from the Legislature in recent years. Changing federal policies, especially those related to immigration and public benefits, have driven up the demand further, and communities are still adjusting to the impact of Hurricane Maria and other natural disasters. Approximately 45,000 otherwise eligible individuals will be turned away again this year. That’s why the EJC is seeking a $26 million total appropriation for FY20, or a $5 million increase to begin to cover this unmet need.
The Governor releases his FY20 budget during the last week of January, marking the beginning off a months-long process to the final budget. The next major step comes in mid-April, when the House Ways & Means Committee will release its budget, triggering a flurry of amendments from the 160 House members seeking changes during the marathon floor debate. After that, it’s on to the Senate for the same series of events, with their version released in May. Then comes a conference committee to reconcile the inevitable differences between the two houses’ budgets, and when the conferees reach agreement, and their respective houses concur (typically a mere formality), that final legislative budget goes to the Governor for his signature, with the prerogative for line-item vetoes that the Legislature can then try to override. Be sure to check out our Geeking Out on the State Budget podcast for a “101” on the Massachusetts Budget Process.
Walk to the Hill falls the day after the Governor’s budget is released and is a great way to kick off our budget advocacy. Rallying at the State House, and meeting with legislators immediately afterward, offer the best opportunity for BBA members and the legal community as a whole to: thank elected officials for their past support, remind them of the importance of civil legal aid, and explain that further increases are still desperately needed to keep up with the growing demand on the justice system. If you don’t know your legislators, you can look them up here, and if you’re not sure what to say, listen to our Issue Spot Podcast on How to Talk to Your Legislators. And as mentioned above, 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.
In addition to civil legal aid, our budget advocacy will also focus on our other regular priorities, including adequate funding for judiciary line-items and the Committee for Public Counsel Services. Visit this post to learn more about where each of these items ended up in the current FY19 budget.
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association