Mark your calendars! Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid, one of the state’s biggest lobby days, is happening at 11am on January 30, 2020. This annual event brings together hundreds of attorneys and public policy advocates at the State House to hear speeches from the judiciary, the bar, and individuals who have been helped by legal aid funding. Following the speeches, you can grab lunch and spread out to speak to your own legislators, urging them to increase state funding for programs that provide civil legal aid to low-income Massachusetts residents.
We will be hosting our annual breakfast directly before the event. You will be able to look up your legislators, hear from our Government Relations team on how to speak to them about civil legal aid, and join us for the short walk across the street to the Great Hall of the State House for the start of the event. We continue to participate in this event every year because of its significance in the budget campaign for civil legal aid, led by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) and the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC) every year. Keep reading to learn more about the significance of Walk to the Hill and about how much funding MLAC and the EJC will be requesting in the FY21 Budget.
The Importance of Civil Legal Aid
MLAC is the largest funding source for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts. It was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that low-income people with critical, non-criminal legal problems would have access to legal information, advice and representation. In 2014, the BBA’s Investing in Justice report underlined the great need for increased civil legal aid funding, revealing that MLAC-funded legal services programs are forced to turn away nearly two-thirds of qualified applicants.
According to a 2017 report by the Legal Services Corporation, low-income Americans receive no or inadequate professional help for 86% of their civil legal problems. And, the report states, 71% of low-income households in America have experienced at least one civil legal problem in the past year. The gravity of this problem is great in Massachusetts, where, due to a lack of funding, legal aid programs are forced to turn away most eligible residents – nearly 45,000 people each year – who seek help.
The Budget Ask
Last year, we asked for a $5 million increase in the MLAC budget-item for a total appropriation of $26 million. In a big victory for civil legal aid, MLAC received a $3 million increase, resulting in a $24 million appropriation, up from $21 million for FY19. This in turn allowed MLAC to increase its support for the 16 legal service organizations it funds in FY20 – its largest-ever round of state appropriation funding for legal services organizations in Massachusetts.
The legal aid organizations that receive funding from MLAC provide critical civil legal aid to struggling people who otherwise would not have legal representation in serious civil legal matters. In most instances, people qualify for civil legal aid if their annual income is at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,188 for a family of four.
The legal aid organizations receiving MLAC funding include regional organizations — which provide advice and representation to low-income people facing civil legal issues related to housing, health care, public benefits, immigration, domestic violence, and other serious legal issues — and statewide organizations that specialize in certain areas of law and serve clients statewide.
For FY21, the EJC is requesting an additional $5 million increase from last year’s budget, which would total $29 million. The Governor will release his FY21 budget during the last week of January, marking the beginning of 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.
This is why Walk to the Hill is such an important advocacy opportunity. Rallying at the State House and meeting with legislators immediately afterwards 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 civil justice system.
The same BBA commitment to access to justice also led us this year to join the Right to Counsel Coalition, in support of providing representation to low-income tenants and landlords in eviction cases. The coalition has been gaining support in the past months, receiving shout-outs from the Boston Globe and SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants during his State of the Judiciary speech. You can read more about that effort here.
If you don’t know your legislators, you can look them up here, and if you need a refresher on how to talk to your legislators, listen to our “Talking To Your Legislator About Legal Aid” podcast and then join us at the BBA for our annual pre-Walk breakfast, where our Government Relations director will issue advice on how to be the best advocate for civil legal aid you can be. Please don’t hesitate to contact our Government Relations team if you want to learn more about how you can get involved in Walk to the Hill or the fight for funding for civil legal aid.
Government Relations & Executive Assistant
Boston Bar Association