Monthly Archives: June 2019

State Budget Update: Conference Committee

The fate of the Fiscal Year 2020 Massachusetts state budget, and with it several BBA priorities, is now in the hands of the six legislators who make up the House/Senate Conference Committee:

(If you are represented by any of the above, please contact them now, to express your support for the provisions below. Confirm your elected officials here.  Contact information is found through the individual links above.)

We regularly use this space to keep you updated on our priorities and our advocacy.  As we enter the final stages of the budget process—with a conference-committee compromise budget expected within weeks, at which point the plan would be sent to the Governor—the BBA has sent a letter to the conferees, outlining our priorities in four key areas:

Funding for civil legal aid (line-item 0321-1600)

This funding, through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) has long been a top BBA priority. We work with MLAC and the Massachusetts Bar Association, as partners in the Equal Justice Coalition, in our advocacy—the most-visible manifestation of which each year is the Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid.

Since the 2014 release of Investing in Justice, the report of our Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, we have had an even stronger basis for our case on behalf of MLAC’s line-item, pointing to our surveys showing that nearly two-thirds of qualified applicants must be turned away by providers for lack of resources, and to independent research demonstrating the positive return on the Commonwealth’s investment in the area.

In the intervening five years, the Legislature has been very generous in increasing MLAC funding, yet the demand continues to grow apace.  This year, the BBA supports the Senate’s appropriation of $24 million, which would represent a $3 million increase from the current FY19 figure.

Funding for the Trial Court (multiple line-items)

In spite of steady, generous increases in their appropriations from the Legislature in the years since the Great Recession, the Trial Court remains underfunded. Over the last few years, it has made great strides in finding ways to work smarter and leverage technological advancements to get more done with less. As a result of this work, they have been able to continue the efficient and effective operation of the courts, even with a 17% reduction in staffing between FY09 and FY18.

It is essential that our courts are adequately funded, and we have urged the conferees to adopt the higher appropriation for each line-item.

We were strong supporters of statewide expansion of the Housing Court, and, consistent with that position, we asked the committee to continue to fully fund the implementation of the expansion.

Funding for re-entry services to reduce recidivism (line-item 0339-1011)

While we remain grateful to the Legislature for last session’s sweeping reforms aimed at making our criminal-justice system more fair and effective, Massachusetts continues to trail other states in funding re-entry programs that help prevent individuals from getting trapped in cycles of recidivism. In the our 2017 criminal justice reform report, No Time to Wait, we highlighted the “lack of program availability” as one of the three reasons that so many are denied access to these vital resources and urged the Commonwealth to “ensure adequate funding and accountability for anti-recidivism reforms.”

Each year, thousands of Massachusetts residents are released from county jails and state prisons, many with little or no resources to help in securing essential needs like employment and housing.  Without any support, the likelihood of returning to illegal practices, and re-entering the justice system, greatly increases.  Community-based residential re-entry services, like those that would be funded through this line-item, offer safe housing, workforce development, and case management, fostering connections and stability for those re-entering society.

For these reasons, the BBA supports the House’s appropriation of $4.5 million.

Funding for Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) (line-items 0321-1500 and 0321-1510)

CPCS 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. Adequate funding helps CPCS 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.

We have asked that the conference committee adopt the higher level of funding for CPCS operations and for its private-counsel program.

We also requested that the final budget incorporate the Senate’s budget language allowing for an expansion of CPCS’s emergency authority to waive statutory billable-hours limitations under certain limited circumstances. 

Currently, 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, in conjunction with expanded capacity for bar advocates, or private attorneys who defend indigent clients, would assist CPCS in finding attorneys willing to take on these difficult cases and protect the constitutional rights of these parents and children.

We expect to know soon what action the conference committee proposes on these items, and we anticipate one final push to urge Governor Charlie Baker to act on them, once the budget arrives on his desk.

—Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

BBA Endorses HAVEN Act to Protect Veterans’ Disability Benefits

The Boston Bar Association has endorsed legislation to protect recipients of veterans’ disability benefits who are facing bankruptcy proceedings. 

The bill, pending in Congress, is known as the Honoring American Veterans in Extreme Need Act of 2019, or HAVEN Act, and would address an inexplicable loophole in current bankruptcy law that excludes Social Security disability benefits, but not veterans’ disability benefits, from the calculation of disposable income when a debtor files for bankruptcy. Because of this disparate treatment, disability benefits received through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) may be accessible by creditors, unlike similar benefits that happen to be administered through the Social Security Administration. The HAVEN Act would rectify this imbalance by excluding veterans’ disability benefits from that calculation of income.

We have sent a letter from BBA President Jon Albano to the Massachusetts Congressional delegation, asking for their support for the HAVEN Act, in order to ensure equal treatment of disabled veterans in bankruptcy proceedings.  As the letter states:

It is unclear why this oversight occurred when significant Bankruptcy Code reforms were last enacted in 2005. Prior to that, bankruptcy courts had discretion when deciding whether to count disability-related income from the VA/DoD as “current monthly income”.

The Bankruptcy Code, as currently written, provides that if a debtor seeks protection under a Chapter 7 liquidation, that debtor must pass a “means test”, such that if the debtor earns too much “monthly income” in comparison with expenses, they cannot proceed via Chapter 7 but must instead use a more-protracted Chapter 13 proceeding, which involves pledging a percentage of future income, usually for three or five years, to pay creditors. 

Because of the disparate treatment of disability benefits under the current means test, more disabled veterans will be pushed into Chapter 13, and their future veterans’ disability benefits will be applied to pay creditors. Recipients of Social Security disability payments, however, will not suffer the same consequences.

The proposed amendment would rectify this imbalance by excluding veterans’ disability benefits from that calculation of monthly income.

We thank the BBA’s Bankruptcy Law section and our Active Duty Military & Veterans Forum for their help with this matter and we hope to update you when the HAVEN Act becomes law.  In the meantime, if you’d like to add your voice, you can contact Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Ed Markey, and your member of Congress, to ask for their support.

—Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

BBA Joins Coalition on Right to Counsel in Eviction Cases

The Boston Bar Association has joined the Massachusetts Right to Counsel Coalition, proclaiming its support for the goal of ensuring legal representation to low-income tenants, post-foreclosure occupants, and landlords.  The BBA will work alongside the Coalition to promote state legislation that will achieve this goal.

This stance is in keeping not only with the BBA’s mission to advance access to justice but also with past BBA positions on expansion of the right to counsel to include civil matters where basic human needs are at stake—including, to quote from a 2006 ABA resolution endorsed by the BBA, “those involving shelter, sustenance, safety, health or child custody.”  All of this is in service to fulfilling the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright through what is known as “civil Gideon”.

BBA History

The following year, the BBA appointed a Task Force on the Civil Right to Counsel, chaired by past BBA President Mary Ryan and Jayne Tyrrell (director of the Massachusetts IOLTA Committee).  The Task Force’s report, Gideon’s New Trumpet, sought to further advance the debate over civil right to counsel by proposing concrete steps that could be taken toward its implementation, across a range of issue areas, through nine separate pilot projects—all focused on civil proceedings involving a basic need or right, where nothing short of representation by counsel will preserve that right.

Among these pilot projects, the report included a plan for eviction cases, based on its finding that:

The need for assistance in cases involving eviction is great. … In Massachusetts, as elsewhere around the country, most tenants and some landlords appear without counsel.  With no right to counsel established in the eviction area, indigent tenants obtain full representation only when legal services offices or a pro bono attorney are able to take their case, a relatively rare occurrence because housing cases are high on the list of unmet legal needs. Tenants who are represented are much more likely to obtain a better result, whether it be maintaining possession of the premises, reaching a favorable settlement or winning at trial.

The Task Force’s recommendation was that the right to counsel for tenants under threat of eviction attach in certain specified cases (involving mental disability or criminal conduct) or under judicial discretion, and that it extend as well to landlords in limited instances (owner-occupied dwellings, for example). 

Following the release of the report, there was considerable public interest in the recommendations, particularly the concept that judicious use of legal aid could prevent homelessness and minimize the impact of evictions.  The Boston Bar Foundation, the Boston Foundation and the Massachusetts Bar Foundation funded two pilots in Quincy and the Northeast Housing Court which demonstrated the significant impact of having counsel.  For example, in Quincy District Court, two-thirds of those represented retained possession, compared to one-third of those in the control group (no representation).  Two additional pilots in Worcester and MetroWest were funded by a grant from the Attorney General’s HomeCorps program, with similar results.

[1] See BBA Task Force on the Civil Right to Counsel, The Importance of Representation in Eviction Cases and Homelessness Prevention: A Report on the BBA Civil Right to Counsel Housing Pilots, at 5  (March 2012). 

Whether by the Legislature or the courts, the right to counsel has been recognized in Massachusetts in some civil cases, including care and protection cases, child guardianship cases, children requiring assistance, mental-health commitments and waiver of consent to adoption.  In two related cases, in 2014 and 2015, the BBA signed onto amicus briefs supporting an expansion of the right to counsel in guardianship cases, to include counsel for guardians whose parental rights are at stake.

And of course the BBA has long provided pro-bono attorneys for both landlords and tenants at Lawyer for the Day sessions in the Housing Court. 

The Proposal

In recent years, state legislation has been proposed to promote housing stability by providing a right to counsel in eviction cases, modeled on efforts undertaken in major cities around the nation.

The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI)—which previously led a successful coalition (in which the BBA took part) to expand the Housing Court to statewide jurisdiction—has turned its attention to this issue and is building a coalition in support of a newly-drafted framework for legislation to enact a right to counsel for indigent parties in evictions.  The coalition’s detailed guidelines build on the best elements of two different bills filed on this issue in the current 2019-20 legislative session.

More than 40,000 households in Massachusetts were served with eviction papers in 2018, and 92% of these tenants lacked legal representation.  Adoption of a right to counsel in these cases will ensure that low-income people have access to resources and assistance to prevent illegal or unnecessary evictions; reduce homelessness, trauma, and family displacement; allow tenants to avoid the stigma of a public court record; and stabilize individual housing as well as communities.  Although 70% of landlords have counsel, the proposal would extend the right to counsel in eviction cases to cover certain indigent landlords, as endorsed by the BBA (see above). 

In summary, the plan includes the following elements:

  • A broad definition of eligibility, to include:
    • tenants, former homeowners facing eviction after foreclosure, and owner-occupants of two-family homes seeking possession where their own and only home may be at stake
    • income-eligibility at 200% of poverty-level or less.
  • Attachment of the right to counsel when a notice to quit is received—or if no notice to quit is provided, upon service of an eviction complaint.
    • Covers summary process and similar proceedings, including formal public- housing grievance hearings requested by tenants facing an eviction and voucher-terminations hearings.
  • A continuum of legal assistance and housing-stability support should be provided by a designated agency with collaborating community partners, to include:
    • Community outreach to educate people about legal rights and assistance
    • At the notice to quit stage, assessment to screen for housing-stability resources, mediation and legal support as needed.
    • At the administrative hearing stage, assessment to screen for housing stability resources and a trained legal advocate.
    • At the eviction complaint stage, full representation by a legal advocate.
  • A requirement that a landlord inform the occupant of the right to counsel, with protections and penalties in place for failure to do so.
    • The courts should develop procedures to inform litigants about the right to counsel and provide a written waiver for eligible parties that they are knowingly and voluntarily waiving this right.
  • The coalition seeks to create a Civil Justice Committee with independent authority that would be based in the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, to develop, implement, monitor, and evaluate a program to implement the right to counsel.
  • The Committee would be tasked with developing, within one year, a plan for implementation.
    • It would be composed of 17 members, including gubernatorial and legislative appointees, three court representatives, two CPCS members, and various other stakeholders, including three MLAC seats and one for the Volunteer Lawyers Project.
    • Its goal would be to designate existing regional entities with legal expertise in landlord/tenant law that will establish collaborations with existing non-profits organizations to achieve effective tenant education, housing stability, and homelessness prevention.

The legislation would not specify how the right is to be funded, but one of the coalition’s organizing principles is that the right must be funded with new money and not by simply reallocating existing legal-assistance and housing-stabilization resources.

Other coalition principles include:

  • Pre-court eviction help, pro-active education and outreach, and housing stabilization are needed to prevent tenants from losing subsidized housing, and to save landlords, tenants, and courts time and money and better facilitate the resolution of cases.
  • Development of an implementation plan must provide a process to allow for input from all stakeholders on the multitude of issues to consider.
  • Implementation must build upon the work of existing organizations with a proven track record of effectiveness in the areas of landlord/tenant legal assistance, homelessness prevention, and housing stabilization. 
  • Collaboration is needed among legal services, social services, community organizers, municipalities, courts, educational institutions, and other organizations to create a continuum of impactful assistance. 
  • Oversight and assessment of the program should be designed in a way to insure measurable outcomes, data collection, and public reporting.

A legislative hearing on the issue is expected in the summer or fall, and the BBA will work alongside our coalition partners—including law firms, legal-services providers, municipalities, and community groups—to advocate for this plan’s enactment.

—Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association