Posts Categorized: MLAC

Budget Update

The Senate is finalizing its budget and we have the latest updates below.  After that it is on to a conference committee to settle discrepancies between the House and Senate. Here is a breakdown of where things currently stand (updated to reflect the latest Senate budget debate):

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC)

  • Request: $27,000,000
  • Governor’s Budget: $17,170,000
  • House Ways and Means Budget: $18,000,000
  • House Final Budget: $18,500,000
  • Senate Ways and Means Budget: $17,000,000
  • Senate Final: $18,000,000

The Senate adopted a $1 million amendment (#1000) co-sponsored by Senators Creem and Brownsberger during its budget debate.  MLAC funding will now be debated in Conference, where we hope the House number of $18,500,000 will be adopted.

Trial Court

  • Request: $654,374,856 + Modules
  • Governor’s Budget: $638,606,000
  • House Ways and Means Budget: $639,900,000 (including Specialty Courts module)
  • House Final Budget: $639,900,000 (including Specialty Courts module)
  • Senate Ways and Means Budget: $643,484,303
  • Senate Final Budget: $643,484,303

We were pleased to see that the Senate budget proposal is roughly $3.5 million higher than the proposed House appropriation.  We were also pleased to see that it included language and funding for statewide expansion of the Housing Court (more on that below).

However, we were disappointed that the Specialty Court module, funded by the House, was left out of the Senate’s budget plan.  We were proud to recognize the remarkable work of the Specialty Courts at last week’s Law Day Dinner, and the $2.8 million Specialty Courts module would allow for their expansion statewide, giving access to justice for some of the most vulnerable populations and helping to treat issues underlying criminal behavior, such as homelessness, drug abuse, and mental health or veterans issues with support and dignity in order to curb recidivism.  We hope that the final budget can include adequate funding for the Trial Court as well as funding for statewide expansion of both the Housing and Specialty Courts.

Statewide Housing Court Expansion

  • Request: $2,400,000
  • Governor’s Budget: $1,000,000
  • House Ways and Means Budget: $0
  • House Final Budget: $0
  • Senate Ways and Means Budget: $1,194,614
  • Senate Final Budget: $1,194,614

The BBA has been advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court for the last year. Housing Court has statutory jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases which involve the health, safety, or welfare of the occupants or owners of residential housing, as well as code enforcement cases. One of its greatest strength is that its judges are experienced in these issues and best able to address the complexities and nuances of each case.

The total cost to the state for the expansion is estimated to be roughly $2.4 million per year.  The Governor’s budget included $1 million for Specialty Court, enough to get it started and operational for 6 months, but the House did not follow his lead, leaving this measure out of its budget entirely.  We were pleased to see that the Senate provided similar language and funding to the Governor’s proposal, and we hope that this will remain in the final state budget and be included in the final budget.

We look forward to keeping you updated on the latest budget developments and, as always, urge you to make your voice heard at the State House.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

A Call to Action on the Budget

Yesterday we hope you received our budget alert – a call to action advocating on behalf of funding for civil legal aid, the Trial Court, and statewide expansion of the Housing Court.  With budget debate in the House forthcoming next week, now is the time to contact your Representative on these issues.  Here are some quick notes for you to share with them (Don’t know who to call?  Look up your Representative here.):

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC)
• Request: $27,000,000
• Governor’s Budget: $17,170,000
• House Ways and Means Budget: $18,000,000

Representative Ruth Balser has filed amendment #847 asking for an additional $9 million.  If adopted, it would bring the total MLAC line item to $27,000,000.  The amendment is currently co-sponsored by more than 70 Representatives, and the list keeps growing.  If you see your Representative on that list, call them to express your thanks and ask them to continue pushing for the amendment.  If you don’t see their name on that list, click here to ask them to sign on.

Trial Court
• Request: $654,374,856 + Modules
• Governor’s Budget: $638,606,000
• House Ways and Means Budget: $639,900,000 (including Specialty Courts module)

As you can see above, the Trial Court is being funded at far below its maintenance amount.  Amendment #474, filed by Representative John Fernandes, seeks an additional $17 million.  If the Trial Court does not receive this funding, it will likely have to lay off around 300 individuals, resulting in decreased service at courthouses already stretched thin.

The courts have recently made great strides toward modernizing and enhancing efficiencies under the new management structure put in place by the Legislature, as evinced by their request for maintenance funding of only 6,520 staff positions, a 17% reduction in staffing levels since FY02.  Furthermore, in the last eight years, while the state budget has increased 43.3% overall, funding for the Trial Court, a major piece of the third co-equal branch of government, has increased by only 7.9%.  More funding is essential to maintaining the high quality of justice to which we in Massachusetts are accustomed.

Statewide Housing Court Expansion
• Request: $2,400,000
• Governor’s Budget: $1,000,000
• House Ways and Means Budget: $0

The BBA has been advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court for the last year. Housing Court is a special court session conducted by experienced and expert judges.  They operate out of already existing court houses, providing landlords and tenants with a special legal forum to resolve disputes, as well as code enforcement, mortgage fraud, and numerous complex housing matters.

The total cost to the state for the expansion is estimated to be roughly $2.4 million per year.  The Governor’s budget included $1 million for Specialty Court, enough to get it started and start phasing it in to the areas not currently covered.  Unfortunately, the House Ways and Means Budget did not, potentially stifling this much-needed measure.  As a result, Representative Chris Walsh has filed amendments #1180 (to fund with $1,200,000) and #1176 (to include enacting language) creating Housing Court.

Housing Court covers 80% of the state geographically – but only about two-thirds of the population.  Housing Court is the only forum in the Commonwealth set up to handle code enforcement, evictions, and other housing issues on a daily basis.  Its judges have the expertise to analyze the federal, state, local laws and codes on housing.  Housing Court is also the only forum to use Housing Specialists, individuals who mediate cases, saving potential litigants time and money they would otherwise spend to have their case heard in court.  Over half of Housing Court cases were resolved in this way last year.  Specialists also perform on-site reviews of property to resolve issues concerning housing conditions.  In part because of these services, Housing Court is extremely efficient, featuring the lowest cost per case of any Trial Court department.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

 

Funding Justice: BBA FY17 Budget Advocacy

On Wednesday, the Legislature took the second major step in the FY2017 budget process, releasing the House Ways and Means budget recommendation, roughly 2.5 months after the January 27 release of the Governor’s budget recommendation.  The BBA has been advocating for adequate funding for the judiciary through the Trial Court line items, civil legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) line-item, and statewide expansion of the Housing Court.  We sent a letter to Brian Dempsey, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee detailing the funding needs in these areas.

Here is where things currently stand as to each of these BBA budget priorities:

MLAC

Funding for civil legal services has never been more crucial, in large part because legal aid helps address many of the most pressing social issues facing the Commonwealth today.  Every day, legal aid helps prevent unjust foreclosures and evictions, protect victims of domestic violence, and assure access to essential care and services, including life-saving treatments to combat addiction.  And that is only a small piece of what they do.  They provide advice and representation in many and diverse legal areas, including helping set up small businesses and organizing mentoring nonprofits.

However, because of their outstanding reputation and the overwhelming need for legal aid, MLAC agencies had to turn down 64% of the qualified clients seeking their services in 2013 according to the findings of the BBA’s Investing in Justice Task Force Report.  And that was only the people who actually got through the long wait times to have their issues considered.  As a result, the courts have to bear the weight of pro se litigants who often do not understand court procedures, bogging down the justice system and creating added work for already overburdened judges and court staff.  Most importantly, it also often leads to an unjust outcome, particularly where one side has representation and the other does not.  In a recent survey of judges, more than 60% responded that the influx of pro se litigants hindered the fair administration of justice.

Here is a breakdown of MLAC funding:

FY16 Final Budget Amount $17,000,000
FY17 MLAC Request $27,000,000
FY17 Governor’s Budget $17,170,000
FY17 House Ways & Means $18,000,000
FY17 House Final House budget debate will take place during the week of 4/25
FY17 Senate Ways & Means

Forthcoming

FY17 Senate Final
FY17 Conference Committee
FY17 Final Budget Amount

 

Representative Ruth Balser will be filing an amendment requesting an additional $9 million in MLAC funding.  We hope that you will call your Representative or email them directly and ask them to support her amendment (Don’t know your legislator?  Look them up here), not only for the great work legal services agencies provide, but also because they can essentially pay for themselves.  Investing in Justice demonstrates that in the areas of evictions, domestic violence, and federal benefits every dollar invested in legal aid returns $2 to $5 to the state.  Be sure to thank them for the House’s generous $2 million funding increase last year!  Legal aid is already putting that investment to good use, to handle an additional 1,230 cases, benefitting some 3,295 residents.  With $10 million more this year, they can expand their reach to more than 16,000 additional people.

Trial Court

The Trial Court is comprised of seven departments which handle nearly all of the cases in the Commonwealth and represent the main point of contact for nearly all Massachusetts residents who have legal issues they need resolved.  Thus it is essential that courts are adequately funded.  The Trial Court provides an annual budget breakdown wherein it asks for a maintenance funding amount, which is what is required to continue providing current services, and a host of modules for the budget-makers to consider with additional funding.  This year’s maintenance budget request is around $654 million, and the nine modules range in price from $785,000 to $10 million.

In the budget, the Trial Court is represented by 15 line items.  It received a generous increase of nearly $20 million in last year’s budget, but the judiciary is still underfunded.  The courts have made great strides toward modernizing and enhancing efficiencies under the new management structure put in place by the Legislature, as evinced by their request for maintenance funding of only 6,520 staff positions, a 17% reduction in staffing levels since FY02.  Furthermore, in the last eight years, while the state budget has increased 43.3% overall, funding for the Trial Court, a major piece of the third co-equal branch of government, has increased by only 7.9%.

However, the Trial Court still has a major need for increased funding in order to continue improving.  For example, the installation of new technologies, which can ultimately save on staffing and overhead costs, requires large up-front investments.   In addition, the Trial Court’s facilities are in dire need of upgrades in the area of security systems, to preserve the safety of court employees, users, and the general public — a $4.1 million module.  Furthermore, innovations such as the successful Specialty Courts, a $2.8 million module, increase access to justice for vulnerable populations, but need adequate staffing and funding to thrive and expand, so that all residents who can benefit from participation in the Specialty Courts have access to them.

As shown in the table below, the Governor’s budget included roughly a $7 million increase over last year’s funding level, but is still $17 million below the Trial Court’s maintenance funding needs.  Funding at this level would result in layoffs of approximately 300 Trial Court employees according to a statement from SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants.  The House Ways and Means budget matched that amount but also included the Specialty Courts module.

FY16 Final Budget Amount $631,500,000
FY17 Maintenance Budget Request $654,374,856
FY17 Governor’s Budget $638,606,000
FY17 House Ways & Means $639,900,000 (includes Specialty Courts module)
FY17 House Final House budget debate will take place during the week of 4/25
FY17 Senate Ways & Means

Forthcoming

FY17 Senate Final
FY17 Conference Committee
FY17 Final Budget Amount

 

Housing Court

The BBA has been advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court for the last year. Housing Court is a special court session conducted by experienced and expert judges.  They operate out of already existing court houses, providing landlords and tenants with a special legal forum to resolve disputes, as well as code enforcement, mortgage fraud, and numerous complex housing matters.

Housing Court was first established in 1972 for the City of Boston.   Since then, it has gradually expanded through the advocacy work of local constituencies to its current makeup, consisting of five divisions covering approximately 80% of the state geographically – but only about two-thirds of the population.  Housing Court is the only forum in the Commonwealth set up to handle code enforcement, evictions, and other housing issues on a daily basis.  Its judges have the expertise to analyze the federal, state, local laws, and codes on housing.

Housing Court is also the only forum to use Housing Specialists, individuals who mediate cases, saving potential litigants time and money they would otherwise spend to have their case heard in court.  Over half of Housing Court cases were resolved in this way last year.  Specialists also perform on-site reviews of property to resolve issues concerning housing conditions.  In part because of these services, Housing Court is extremely efficient, featuring the lowest cost per case of any Trial Court department.

Finally, Housing Court is adept at serving pro se litigants and individuals facing evictions.  It is home to the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP), a counseling service designed to intervene in cases affecting individuals with physical and/or mental disabilities to help prevent homelessness, as well as volunteer lawyer-for-the-day and other self-help forums.

Despite all these benefits, nearly one-third of Massachusetts residents do not have access to a housing court.  Currently, there is no Housing Court for all of Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket Counties, most of Norfolk County, and a large portion of Middlesex County.  These areas include cities such as Chelsea, Framingham, Malden, Cambridge, Medford, Somerville, Watertown, Woburn, and Waltham, which have some of the highest number of rental units.  As a result, any housing or code enforcement issues in these counties are heard in District Court, where judges may not have any special housing expertise and housing cases are simply a drop in the bucket of a high volume caseload.  One consequence we’ve heard is that municipalities not covered by the Housing Court sometimes don’t even bring code-enforcement actions to District Court, because they know the inevitable delays make it not worth the effort.

The total cost to the state for the expansion is estimated to be roughly $2.4 million per year.  The Governor’s budget included $1 million for Specialty Court, enough to get it started and start phasing it in to the areas not currently covered.  Unfortunately, the House Ways and Means Budget did not, potentially stifling this much-needed measure.  As a result, Representative Chris Walsh will file an amendment on April 15 to include $1.2 million and the authorization for statewide housing court in the House budget.  We hope that you will call your Representative and ask them to support his amendment (Don’t know your legislator?  Look them up here).

Estimated Cost $2,400,000
FY17 Governor’s Budget $1,000,000 (to cover the first 6 months)
FY17 House Ways & Means $0
FY17 House Final House budget debate will take place during the week of 4/25
FY17 Senate Ways & Means

Forthcoming

FY17 Senate Final
FY17 Conference Committee
FY17 Final Budget Amount

 

Please keep an eye out for a budget alert next week.  We hope that you will take the time to contact your legislators and run through some talking points with them on why this funding is important.  Below are some quick bullet points for you to raise:

MLAC – Line Item 0321-1600

  • Seeking $10 million, for a total of $27 million. The House Ways & Means budget included a $1 million increase.  Representative Ruth Balser is filing an amendment to secure the additional $9 million.  Please support her amendment!
  • Provides civil legal aid for indigent individuals for essential life services such as eviction prevention and protection from domestic abuse
  • 64% of qualifying individuals are turned away annually – more than 54,000 individuals
  • Pro se litigants place a burden on the courts and struggle to access justice
  • Civil legal aid is a good investment, providing a positive return on investment by saving the state in areas such as shelter and medical costs.

Trial Court (15 Line Items)

  • Seeking $654 million, $17 million more than included in the House Ways & Means budget. If funding remains at the current proposed level, the Trial Court will have to lay off 300 essential staffers.
  • Despite being chronically underfunded — in the last eight years, while the state budget has increased by 43.3%, funding for the Trial Court has only increased by 7.9% — the courts have made great strides in efficiency. Today they operate at full capacity with 17% fewer employees than in FY02.
  • Lack of funding will stifle innovations and potentially endanger court users. As demonstrated by the module requests, the courts deserve increased funding for programs such as overhauling outdated security systems and expanding the groundbreaking Specialty Court sessions, which provide support and treatment for the issues underlying criminal behavior and have produced great results in reducing recidivism.

Statewide Housing Court Expansion – Line Item 0036-0003

  • Requires $2.4 million to operate yearly, but could ramp up to full capacity with the $1 million proposed by the Governor. Unfortunately, the House Ways & Means budget includes no funding for this initiative.
  • Nearly two-thirds of residents are deprived of this resource. Housing Court is the only forum in the Commonwealth set up to handle code enforcement, evictions, and other housing issues on a daily basis with specialized judges, housing specialists who mediate cases to avoid costly trials, and the Tenancy Preservation Program, providing counseling and intervention for individuals with physical and mental disabilities to prevent homelessness.

Thank you for your help and we hope you will check in again as we continue to keep you updated no the latest budget developments.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Equal Justice Coalition Legislative Recognition Reception

The Equal Justice Coalition’s Legislative Recognition Reception annually honors some of the state’s top leaders in civil legal aid advocacy.  The event is a great opportunity to recognize the work of state officials who devote their time and efforts to expanding access to justice.  The awards are hosted by the Equal Justice Coalition, a joint project of the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC).  Founded in 1999, the EJC campaigns for legal aid funding, including through the annual Walk to the Hill lobbying day.

The 2016 Legislative Recognition Reception was held on Wednesday evening at the Grand Staircase in the Massachusetts State House.  The honorees included Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy and Attorney General Maura Healey, who received the Champion of Justice Awards, and Beacon of Justice Award winners, Representatives Claire Cronin, Paul Donato, and Brad Hill, and Senators Harriette Chandler and Karen Spilka.

Not only was the event an opportunity for the Equal Justice Coalition to honor some of its strongest supporters, but it also gave everyone a chance to explain why they support legal aid.  Rich Johnston, chief legal counsel to Attorney General Maura Healey, accepted the award on her behalf.  He spoke glowingly of how she lives and breathes the pursuit of justice every moment of every day, and lauded her unyielding commitment.

IMG_20160323_184635928 SMALL CROPPED Sen. Spilka
Chairwoman Karen Spilka and Betsy Soule, Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services

Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, Karen Spilka spoke of the inspiration she draws from the Jewish traditions of tzedakah, or charity, and tikkun olam, making the world a better place – as well as the Biblical directive, “Justice, justice, thou shalt pursue.”  That phrase, and those traditions, have guided her service in the Legislature and hold a personal meaning – reminding the Senator, a former social worker, that individuals are all responsible for each other.



Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler received her Beacon of Justice Award from constituent Faye Rachlin, Deputy Director of Community Legal Aid.  Senator Chandler spoke of both the philosophical and practical aspects of her support.  Her career has always focused on helping others, especially those in her community.  The Senator explained that in simplest terms, she is a big supporter of funding for civil legal aid because she refers many constituents to legal aid programs for assistance and recognizes both the utility and necessity of the services they provide.



Second Assistant Majority Leader Paul Donato and Minority Leader Bradford Hill, were also recognized for their long-time support of civil legal aid.  Representative Donato declared civil legal aid a “beacon of light” for those in need.  He drew a personal connection between his role as an advocate for his constituents and the representation civil legal aid attorneys provide for their clients.  He also spoke as a member of the Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, which has given him specific insight into the challenges many elders face trying to navigate through the judicial system, challenges that are eased, if not alleviated altogether, by legal representation provided by MLAC organizations.



Representative Hill thanked the attendees for their advocacy.  He noted that, without their work, legislators wouldn’t know about the services legal aid provides or its funding needs, and he stressed that legal aid funding is truly a nonpartisan issue.



The final Beacon of Justice Award was presented to Representative Claire Cronin, House Vice-Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.  She thanked the House’s Speaker Robert DeLeo and Chair of Ways and Means Brian Dempsey, saying they were all doing their best to support civil legal aid.  She applauded the work of legal aid attorneys, noting she knows they are not in it for the money, but “the wealth they receive is all the good they do for others.”  She encouraged them to keep working every day because it matters so much.



Finally, retiring Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy, received his Champion of Justice Award.  In the audience to show their support were fellow SJC Justices Nan Duffly and Margot Botsford, along with Chief Justice Ralph Gants.  Justice Cordy’s former clerk and Equal Justice Coalition member Louis Tompros, WilmerHale, spoke about Justice Cordy’s long-time support of legal aid, most notably in his time as legal counsel for Governor Bill Weld, and about his devotion to advocating annually at Walk to the Hill.  Justice Cordy described how access to justice had become one of the principal and most challenging issues of our times.  He commended lawyers working for civil legal aid organizations and spoke of his own beginnings in indigent criminal defense, which gave him special insight into the necessity of representation for the poor as the key to accessing justice.

IMG_20160323_182107187 SMALL CROPPED - Carol, Louis Tompros, and Cordy

Louis Tompros, WilmerHale, BBA President-Elect Carol Starkey, and Champion of Justice Honoree, SJC Justice Robert Cordy

In all, it was a great event and we look forward to working with many of the honorees throughout the budget process as we move closer to achieving this year’s goal of an additional $10 million in funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Pro Bono in Your PJs

Wednesday was a big day at the BBA, and potentially for the future of pro bono legal service in Massachusetts.  We were pleased to host a presentation and discussion of the newest innovation in legal service – MassLegalAnswers, an Internet-based virtual help-line, soon to be operating in Massachusetts, that connects those in need of legal help with lawyers.

The concept is simple: in brief, individuals with legal questions who meet certain requirements, such as income limits, can create an account and enter their legal questions into an online database.  Licensed lawyers interested in pro bono work can also create an account where they can log in to the question repository and can select questions to answer.

The site was born out of an online program that started in Tennessee at OnlineTNJustice.org and is quickly spreading to other states.  The sites have been a huge hit both for clients and lawyers, spawning the catch-phrases “pro bono from home” and “pro bono in your pajamas.”  The American Bar Association (ABA) has recognized their effectiveness and is working to spread the site nationally.  Over forty states are currently committed to participating, a number of others are discussing the issue, and a handful have already launched their sites.  The ABA is helping states to adopt similar versions of the Tennessee website, though each state has some options to make tweaks in order to satisfy local ethics rules and to maximize its effectiveness for their populations.  The ABA is also providing malpractice insurance for all lawyers who answer questions through the database.

How it Works

When the database is up and running, a client question queue will form, which lawyers can peruse for cases of interest.  They can also search questions based on urgency and practice area, as well as subscribe to certain practice areas of interest to be alerted of new questions they may be interested in answering.  Once a lawyer selects a question, it is removed from the general pool and enters the lawyer’s private queue.  The questions will be monitored by a site coordinator who will also perform quality control checks of answers provided.

Further details are still being worked out, but generally, the lawyer has a set number of days in which to answer the question before it will be returned to the pool.  The lawyer can provide an answer, and, if necessary, engage in an exchange of questions and answers with the client over the issue, all through the web site.  Either the client or the lawyer has the option of ending the inquiry at any point.  If questions are not answered, they remain in the queue for a set period of time, but may be removed without receiving answers.  This video about Washington’s version of the site provides a good overview of the general operation.


Individual clients are allowed to ask a set number of questions per year, but lawyers can answer as many questions as they are willing to take on.  Lawyers have the option of giving fuller representation if they want to do more, but any additional services are not covered by the website’s malpractice insurance.

The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) will be in charge of running the site with the help of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association (VLP).  They will make sure the technology works as it should, keep an eye on the queue, and recruit both client questions and pro bono volunteers.  MLRI and VLP are currently examining funding and staffing issues, but have plans for both to get the site running, at which point they can re-evaluate staff time and resources.  The beauty of this process is the relatively low startup costs thanks to the ABA providing malpractice insurance and the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and Tennessee Bar Association providing free access to their established online program.

Moving Forward

It is clear that the site will offer unprecedented opportunities to both lawyers and low-income individuals.  Other states have cited examples of lawyers who find this sort of pro bono opportunity especially fulfilling and noted the ability of these sites to unlock a new group of lawyers who are interested in providing pro bono service, but may have been hesitant to take on full representation cases.  There are also stories of teams of lawyers answering questions and law school professors using questions as real-life problems for their students to research and solve.

There are still some issues to work out, and program attendees held fruitful discussions on some of them — including whether attorneys answering questions must disclose their names to clients and whether the site could extend to chat or Skype capabilities.  However, there is also plenty of time, as MLRI is targeting the fall for its go-live date.  In the meantime, MLRI and VLP are working on setting up a panel of advisors who can examine the details and work out the kinks to make this site into a reality.

We are excited to see this idea become a reality and will keep you posted on the latest developments.  Hopefully some of you will consider answering questions through MassLegalAnswers Online in the coming months.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Walk to the Hill 2016

Walk to the Hill 2016 was a huge success.  More than 600 attorneys packed the State House’s Great Hall and spread throughout the building, telling their legislators about the importance of civil legal aid and explaining the urgent need for an additional $10 million in funding.  This increase would bring total funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (line item 0321-1600) to $27 million, allowing them to greatly expand essential services to the most vulnerable populations.

crowd shot

BBA President Lisa Arrowood speaking at Walk to the Hill

Our day began with the BBA’s annual pre-walk breakfast where more than fifty young lawyers gathered to prepare their talking points over coffee and donuts.  We were especially excited to welcome a busload of UMass Boston Law School students who helped get the hashtags “I Walk for Justice” and “Walk to the Hill” trending!

IMG_8170

BBA President Lisa Arrowood with Representative Stanley

BBA President Lisa Arrowood met first with her Representative, Thomas Stanley, and then her Senator, Michael Barrett.  Both were interested in learning more about the findings of our Investing in Justice report that for every $1 spent helping fight against wrongful evictions and foreclosures, Massachusetts saves $2.69 in shelter, health care, foster care, and law enforcement costs.  In addition, every $1 spent on legal aid for survivors of domestic violence results in $2 in medical and mental health care savings, and every $1 spent on legal aid attorneys working to secure federal benefits yields $5 in federal economic benefits to Massachusetts residents.

IMG_8230
BBA President Elect Carol Starkey with Representative Coppinger

BBA President-Elect Carol Starkey also paid a call on her legislators, Representative Edward Coppinger and Senator Mike Rush.  They both noted their support and thanked Carol for spreading the word.

IMG_8242

By 11:00 we were registering and entering the Great Hall with more than 500 of our colleagues.  Equal Justice Coalition Chair John Carroll welcomed everyone to the event and spoke passionately about the importance of legal aid and everyone’s efforts on this day.

IMG_8289

Attorney General Maura Healey was full of high praise, noting that while many think of her office as the “people’s attorney,” legal services are as well.  She applauded them for their work and the legal community for its great showing of support, asking that we all “remember who we are and what we should always aspire to be.”

IMG_8347

Chief Justice Ralph Gants put the funding request into perspective, explaining that $27 million is less than the cost of a single round-trip T-ride for every Massachusetts resident and at less than $4 per person, is below the New York funding rate of $4.30 per resident.  He encouraged attendees to answer legislators who asked how they could afford such an increase with a question of their own, “How can we afford not to?”  He finished, much like a Supreme Judicial Court holding, with a strong closing statement – that supporting legal aid is right, reasonable, and smart.  Read his full remarks here.

IMG_8378MBA President Bob Harnais encouraged legislators to visit the courts to see the effects of the lack of representation – both on the court system and on the pro se litigants themselves, who are confused and overwhelmed.  He recommended attendees invite their legislators to court to offer hard proof of the need for legal aid funding because “seeing is believing” and justice should not be reserved for those who can afford it.

BBA President Lisa Arrowood held up the BBA’s Investing in Justice report and encouraged attendees to spread the word about its contents – making the argument that funding legal aid makes sound business sense for the Commonwealth.  Watch the video above for her full remarks.

IMG_8429

Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) client, Lisa, spoke about how civil legal aid literally offered her son a second chance at life.  When her son was a senior in high school, routine surgery to remove his wisdom teeth resulted in an addiction to pain medication, and a 10-year battle with heroin.  Shortly after he committed himself to methadone treatment, working hard every day to overcome his addiction, he was declared ineligible for MassHealth care coverage because of an administrative change.  Lisa feared that, if he were to miss even one day of treatment, he would suffer withdrawal symptoms and quickly relapse.  GBLS took her case and worked with MassHealth to resolve the issue in short order, taking action Lisa recognizes as the difference between life and death for her son.  Read more about her story here.

Everyone was moved by her story and inspired by all of the speakers to speak with their legislators.  This year’s Walk to the Hill was an unqualified success and a remarkable demonstration of the private bar’s support for access to justice.  Thank you to everyone who participated – we hope that you will continue to be involved throughout the budget process and we look forward to seeing you again at next year’s event!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Senator Brownsberger Talks Criminal Justice Reform at Council Meeting

Today we begin the final countdown to Walk to the Hill 2016 for civil legal aid, which is happening exactly one week from the date of posting, on January 28, from 11:30-12:30 (on-site registration begins at 11:00 am) at the Great Hall in the State House.  So we were very excited to welcome to this week’s BBA Council meeting a key legislator and long-time supporter of legal-aid funding, Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, William Brownsberger.  Senator Brownsberger began with some background on his legal career.  He spoke of his tenure in the Attorney General’s office where he worked on the Public Protection Bureau and as Asset Forfeiture Chief in the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division.  It was there that he first became interested in the issues of addiction, and began consulting and teaching on criminal justice and addiction issues, which he soon turned to full-time.
IMG_7943It wasn’t long, however, before he became sick of talking about people with addictions, and wanted to talk with them, so he began practicing in drug court.  He explained his philosophy that criminal lawyers play a “sacred role” in court so that every defendant knows they “got a fair shake.”  He described how this experience changed his thinking about criminal justice and supervision, as he witnessed that jail time, followed by over-supervision after release, could “crush people” and keep them from reaching their potential as productive members of society.

The Senator then moved on to discussing his views on the need for criminal justice reform, which have been formed by both his personal experiences and his study of the larger issue.  For example, he shared this stunning statistic: 40 years ago the prison population in Massachusetts state prisons was under 2,000 and had been holding fairly steady for decades.  But between 1975 and the early 1990s, that population increased five-fold to around 10,000 individuals, where the level has more or less remained for the last twenty years.  Senator Brownsberger said when he looked into these statistics alongside legislative reforms made during that time period, he could not entirely link the massive prison population increase to major legislative changes.  He concluded that the increase was actually the result of a general societal “tough on crime” push that affected not only legislators but also police, district attorneys, judges, and the public as a whole.  The question now is, can we dial that back? And if so, how?
IMG_7950Furthermore, if it’s the case that the current incarceration problem stems from a larger systemic shift, it is likely that the Legislature cannot solve it alone.  While the Senator expressed some frustration that major reforms have been delayed in the recent past to await the results of outside studies, he was excited about the recent study on Justice Reinvestment being undertaken in Massachusetts by Pew and the Council of State Governments — and by the potential their work holds for bringing the state’s leaders together on criminal justice reform.  He hopes that the state will pass some limited reform bills this session (what he termed hitting “singles and doubles”, such as easing the burden of post-release driver-license suspensions for drug offenders) and then make a push for major, comprehensive reforms in 2017.

While mandatory minimum sentences – which the BBA has long opposed — are certainly a part of the problem, the Senator explained that he felt their impact was sometimes overstated, as they are responsible for less than 20% of the inmate population at both prisons and houses of correction.  He hopes to:

  • increase prisoners’ ability to earn “good time” in order to ultimately shorten their sentences
  • re-classify certain inmates into lower-security facilities as their release nears, in order to better prepare them for re-entry, and
  • rework probation and parole by reducing or eliminating fees and addressing the problem of redundant dual supervision of one ex-offender by both agencies.

These and other steps are aimed at revamping the justice system to make it more supportive of successful re-entry.

We thank the Senator for his insights into the criminal justice system and look forward to working with him on future reforms.  In the meantime, we hope that you will join us at Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid on January 28 to hear speeches by BBA President Lisa Arrowood, MBA President Bob Harnais, and state government leaders and then meet with your State Senator and Representative.  Tell them how much civil legal aid funding means to you, voice your support for appropriating a much-needed $27 million to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC – line item 0321-1600), and start a dialogue that you can continue throughout the budget process — and into the future on issues of interest to you, such as the criminal justice reforms Senator Brownsberger and others are working on.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Giving Thanks for Civil Legal Aid – MLAC at BBA Council

As we gear up for the coming state-budget season, and prepare once again to advocate for civil legal aid, the BBA was pleased to welcome Lonnie Powers, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), Deb Silva, Director of the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC), and Lauren Song, Housing Attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services to its November Council meeting.  Powers began his presentation with a brief history – established in 1983, MLAC’s mission has always been to ensure that low-income people with critical non-criminal legal problems have access to legal information, advice, and representation.  It is the largest funding source for civil legal aid program in Massachusetts, distributing money to fifteen legal aid organizations throughout the state, largely based on the regional population of income-eligible people.

Lonnie-Powers-Headshot-288x300

MLAC Executive Director Lonnie Powers

The BBA has long taken pride in supporting MLAC’s work, both through our partnership in the EJC and also through our funding advocacy.  This effort resulted in the release of the BBA’s Investing In Justice report in late 2013 following nearly 18 months of study by the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.  The report revealed that 64% of income-eligible individuals who seek legal aid are turned away due to lack of resources.  This circumstance has a significant impact, not only on these individuals, but also on the justice system as a whole.  A survey of judges conducted by the Task Force revealed that roughly 6 out of 10 judges felt that a lack of representation negatively impacts the courts’ ability to ensure equal justice.  Many also reported that the increasing number of pro se litigants has bogged down court procedures.  Finally, the report demonstrated that increased investment in civil legal aid can result in cost savings to the Commonwealth of anywhere from $2 to $5 for every $1 invested.  So not only is increasing funding for legal aid the right thing to do, it is also the fiscally responsible thing to do.

With this report as the basis for our advocacy, we were pleased when the Legislature demonstrated their support for legal aid, and their understanding of the Task Force report’s findings, by appropriating $2 million in additional funds, bring the total MLAC line item to $17 million – a substantial increase in a year when the overall budget growth was otherwise quite constrained.  Powers revealed that the MLAC board approved a request this year of an additional $10 million, to bring total MLAC funding to $27 million.  He explained that the $2 million increase enabled MLAC to handle almost 1,100 more cases to the benefit of some 4,300 people.  With potentially almost one million people qualifying for legal aid, there is still a very long way to go to serve the need and bring down that nearly-2/3 turn-away rate, but we are headed in the right direction.  Furthermore, this requested $10 million investment will likely return at least $20 million in savings by avoiding back-end costs such as police, shelter, and medical expenses to the state in domestic violence, homelessness, and other cases.

Lauren Song spoke next.  She is an attorney for the GBLS Housing department, which she describes as requiring near-24/7 work.  She told a story of her representation of the families and individuals affected by an East Boston building collapse.  She explained her calm reaction to a text late one Saturday afternoon – her experience with the current homeless crisis in Boston makes this sort of thing a routine occurrence.  In this case, 22 adults and 9 children from 11 households were evacuated when the building collapsed.  Instead of repairing the building to let these people continue living there, developers attempted to evict them and turn the buildings into luxury condos.  GBLS is fighting for their rights – to return to their homes and, in the meantime, to gain shelter housing.
MLAC at Council cropped 1Deb Silva then presented on the EJC campaign.  Walk to the Hill, the annual lobby day for civil legal aid will take place on January 28th at the State House.  Many law firms send teams, and hundreds of lawyers visit the State House to hear speeches from government leaders and speak to their elected officials about why civil legal aid is important.  Here is our write-up from last year’s program.

The EJC campaign is also responsible for broader advocacy, such as sign-on support letters from law firm managing partners, general counsels of major Massachusetts businesses, and law school deans.  It also solicits support from a coalition of individuals and organizations, including social services providers that refer clients to legal aid and recognize its importance.  This year, they are also working on putting together teams from local law schools to participate in the walk.  Finally, they are facilitating the involvement of local bar associations, particularly in the western part of the state for a “Talk to the Hill,” where lawyers who live and work too far from the city to participate in the walk, call their elected officials.

We look forward to all of these efforts coming together and hope that they will achieve the BBA and MLAC’s shared goal of an additional $10 million in funding for civil legal aid.  We hope you will join us at this year’s Walk to the Hill, and that you will be on the lookout for various budget alerts from January through July during the lengthy budget process.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Judiciary, Access to Justice, and Mass Incarceration All on the Menu at Annual Meeting

Late last week we held our Annual Meeting Luncheon and many of the themes we discuss here featured prominently.  From civil legal aid to mass incarceration to the judicial nomination process, we heard first-hand from some of the state’s top leadership about their work with the BBA and the important role the BBA plays for them.

First up was Speaker Robert DeLeo who received our Presidential Citation.

AM1

The Speaker has been a staunch supporter of both the judiciary and civil legal aid over his 25-year tenure in the State House.  The Speaker helped shape our Investing in Justice report, urging former BBA President J.D. Smeallie, Chair of the BBA Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, to include stories from civil legal aid recipients in the Task Force’s report, in addition to statistical analysis of those turned away and reports on potential cost savings to the state from increased investment.  We have always been impressed with his ability to see the human side of issues.

Speaker DeLeo began his speech by noting his pride in the state’s rich legal history, saying we had repeatedly “set the foundation for justice in America”.  He recognized the work of former Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland and thanked Chief Justice of the Trial Court, Paula Carey, and current Chief Justice of the SJC, Ralph Gants, for their work on court reform and their advocacy in the Legislature.  Having led the push for court reform and the judicial pay raise in recent years, the Speaker boasted that our judiciary remains one of the best in the country, and he assured the crowd that the House remains committed to making justice a priority and to adequately funding the courts.

AM2

Next, he moved onto the BBA’s work on civil legal aid.  After praising the BBA for leadership in the legal community and partnership on Beacon Hill, he singled out J.D. Smeallie and acknowledged that the $2 million increase for legal aid in the FY2016 budget was “not what we hoped it could have been,” but represents only a starting point.  He pledged that continued investment – and ensuring that the most vulnerable, such as domestic-violence survivors and the homeless, receive legal assistance — remains a priority for the House.  Even though Massachusetts is at the forefront of providing legal aid by almost any metric, the Speaker reiterated his commitment to maintaining the high standards we have set as a national leader on both administering and providing access to justice, saying that, as our Task Force demonstrated, it is not only the right thing to do but also fiscally prudent.

AM3

We then presented Chairman John Fernandes with our Distinguished Legislator award, honoring him for his work as a member of that civil legal aid task force, as House Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, and as a leader on alimony reform and on post-conviction access to forensic testing.  He humbly noted that when we honor him with a personal award, we are intrinsically honoring as well the countless others who are always necessarily involved in the process of getting legislation enacted.  On the alimony statute, for example, he cited the work of Chief Justice Carey and members of the bar.

Chairman Fernandes thanked the BBA for calling attention to the growing access to justice gap and for working to get the attention of legislators, especially non-lawyers who may not have witnessed first-hand the struggles of either pro se litigants or the courts in handling them.  The BBA, he said, is unlike self-interested single-issue advocates, because we involve ourselves with issues such as these.  He praised the BBA for being relentless on civil legal aid, and for helping him make the case to the non-lawyers among his colleagues.  And he promised that “we will not rest until there is access to justice for all who need it.”

AM4

Finally, our keynote speaker, Governor Charlie Baker, addressed the more than 1,300 attorneys in attendance.  Though he is not a lawyer, the Governor spoke fondly of the many lawyers he has worked with and learned from over the years, including his current Chief Legal Counsel, Lon Povich – another member of the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.  He then discussed his theory of governing, an overarching theme of his speech.  He explained that being a Republican Governor in a Democratic state is rife with challenges, but also that he embraces working with others, even those with vastly different opinions.  He cited the letters of BBA founder John Adams and his wife Abigail, adults who found ways to disagree without being disagreeable, as a model for the way government should function — the ideal outcome being a “combo platter” that draws from everyone’s ideas.  In his own words, governing is finding solutions.

He offered as an example the opioid epidemic, an issue on which the Governor teamed up with Attorney General Maura Healey (also in attendance that day), and the Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Marylou Sudders, to issue his task force report earlier this year.  He is looking forward to continuing his work with the Legislature, health care community, legal community, and justice system to address the many facets of this complex and overwhelmingly large issue.

That same philosophy of governance also carries into civil legal aid.  The Governor acknowledged the inadequacy of relying, to a great extent, on IOLTA to fund civil legal aid.  That program, explained in more detail in our Investing in Justice report, collects the interest on all funds lawyers hold on behalf of clients, such as while conducting deals, that sits in a bank account for a brief period of time, and directs it to legal aid.  This has been an invaluable funding source for civil legal aid over the years, but has plummeted from nearly $32 million in 2007 to only around $5 million annually today due to a decrease in the number of deals and a collapse in interest rates following the 2008 recession.  This experience has revealed a fundamental flaw – when times are toughest, and therefore the need is greatest, funding for civil legal aid from this extremely important source is generally at its lowest.  The Governor described his hope to begin an open-minded dialogue on finding a way to improve legal aid funding and stabilize its sources.

AM5

The Governor thanked former BBA President Paul Dacier for serving as Chair of the Judicial Nominating Commission.  As we have stated here in the past, the key to continuing our proud history of great and diverse judges is to begin with great and diverse applicants, and both the Governor and the JNC are committed to this outcome.  “I may not be a lawyer,” he stated, “but I want to be remembered for appointing great judges … with your help.”

He then discussed justice reinvestment, the theory that we can use the savings from reducing incarceration rates toward keeping people from entering, or returning to, the justice system through alternative programming.  He noted that, although Massachusetts ranks well nationally, incarcerating people at roughly ½ the national rate – which he described as a tribute to many in the room — we can still learn from other states.  For this reason, he teamed with Chief Justice Gants and legislative leaders to request a review of Massachusetts policies by the Council of State Governments.  They hope to learn what works well in the Commonwealth and what they should change to help reduce recidivism and assist people in re-entering society.  The Governor said he looks forward to examining all the potential solutions and took the opportunity to highlight his willingness to consider a measure to end the practice of suspending driver licenses for drug offenders whose crimes weren’t motor-vehicle related – one that he hopes and expects to be able to sign into law.

Finally, the Governor closed by seizing the opportunity of our Annual Meeting – and capitalizing on its theme of civil legal aid – by continuing the tradition of declaring October to be Pro Bono Month in Massachusetts.

In all, it was an impressive afternoon and we look forward to seeing the solutions these fine leaders devise to the issues they identified.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Near Final State Budget and Innovation in Civil Legal Aid Advocacy

We are pleased to start with some great news.  The FY2016 budget appears to be just about settled as the House and Senate are voting on their Legislative overrides to the Governor’s proposed vetoes (read more about the budget process and all our budget priorities here), and both houses agreed to restore vetoed funding for Prisoner’s Legal Services ($190,504), the Housing Court ($235,527), and the Land Court ($291,470).  All three provide essential services to people in Massachusetts.  At the time of writing, the House had also voted 143-11 to override the Governor’s veto of $3.7 million from the Trial Court’s administrative staffing budget.  We hope the Senate will do the same.

The Land Court Department has statewide jurisdiction over the registration of title to real property and foreclosure and redemption of real estate tax liens.  It also shares jurisdiction over matters arising out of local planning and zoning board decisions.  The Housing Court Department has jurisdiction over civil and criminal actions, including equitable relief, which involve the health, safety, or welfare of the occupants or owners of residential housing.  It hears summary process (eviction) cases, small claims cases, and civil actions involving personal injury, property damage, breach of contract, discrimination, and other housing related claims.  It also hears residential housing code enforcement actions.  We are currently advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court jurisdiction, as it now covers less than 70% of the state population.  This can be accomplished through the enactment of S901/H1656, and we hope restoration of this funding demonstrates the value the Legislature sees in Housing Court, and represents a first step towards passage of these expansion bills.

Thank you to all our members who responded to our social media action alert for Prisoner’s Legal Services (PLS)!  PLS provides legal assistance to incarcerated individuals and promotes the safe, humane, and lawful treatment of Massachusetts prisoners through civil rights litigation, administrative advocacy, client counseling, and policy outreach.  It receives well over 2,000 requests for advice or assistance each year and is one of the only organizations of its kind in the state, working to assure prisoner’s rights are upheld – that they get the medical attention they need, their confinement conditions are constitutional, and they are safe from assault.  PLS’s vital legal aid also safeguards prison staff, protects public health, and eases the burden on our courts.

Throughout the budget veto and override process, the additional $2 million received by Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), which funds civil legal aid programs across the state, remained untouched.  This substantial increase will help MLAC expand its important work and brings its total funding for FY2016 to $17 million, representing a 15% year-over-year increase, when the overall budget increased by only 3%.  This percentage increase demonstrates a clear commitment from the Legislature and Governor to support civil legal aid while also running a more efficient Commonwealth, thanks to the cost savings provided by civil legal aid as demonstrated in our Investing in Justice task force report.

Even as the FY2016 budget cycle comes to an end, our work never stops.  It is precisely this summer “down time” when we need to redouble our efforts and find new ways to spread our message on civil legal aid.  The need for legal aid is ever increasing, and we constantly see new stories highlighting the need for increased funding for legal services agencies and underscoring the value of the assistance they provide.

With this in mind, we are pleased to report on an innovative new way the private bar is becoming involved.  The idea is law firm breakfasts throughout the year, featuring presentations by members of the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC) and MLAC on civil legal aid and advocacy.  It is based, at least in part, on the model started at Nutter McClennen & Fish, which holds a breakfast for the entire firm around the time of Walk to the Hill, the annual lobbying event for civil legal aid, to promote the Walk and explain the importance of lawyers advocating for civil legal aid funding.

The breakfasts are being arranged by the EJC with the help of its private bar liaison, Louis Tompros of Wilmer Hale.  After a successful start at his home firm, the group recently paid a morning visit to Holland & Knight, where Ben Stern was host and past BBA President J.D. Smeallie presented to a full boardroom on the findings of the BBA Statewide Task Force on Civil Legal Aid, which he chaired.  The breakfast also included presentations by MLAC Executive Director Lonnie Powers, EJC Chair John Carroll, of Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow, and EJC Director Deb Silva.

The speakers talked about the history of legal aid and its funding, the importance of legal services, the budget process, tips for advocacy, and the key role played law firm attorneys, who, as Louis explained,  understand the issues and have the means to do something about it.  The presenters stressed the importance of not only being an engaged voter but also contacting legislators to inform them that their constituents care about legal aid.  Just this small act can go a long way and make a major difference.

Thank you to everyone who helped us advocate for our budget priorities in this budget cycle.  We will continue to keep you updated, and hope that you’ll be ready to answer the call again when the FY2017 budget process begins in January.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association