Posts Categorized: Civil Legal Aid

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

Budget Process Nearly Complete

This week, the Legislature’s Budget Conference Committee approved a final FY2016 budget and yesterday it was enacted in both the House and Senate.  Let’s take a look at where our items of interest ended up and how they got there:

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) (Line Item 0321-1600)

We made a historic push for increased funding of this line item.  Following the release of our Investing in Justice task force report, we implemented an intensive and far-reaching educational campaign, which resulted in media coverage from national to local newspapers to radio and television coverage.  We also held meetings with over 50 public officials including state Executive Branch leaders, state and federal legislators, the Attorney General, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

We helped spread the word that 64% of qualified people seeking legal aid are turned away due to lack of resources.  That doesn’t even take into account those individuals who wait for hours on the phone with legal aid agencies and eventually give up because there simply is not enough staff to handle intakes, a number that may be as high as 50%.  We also were proud to share the accomplishments of the private bar, which operates in a public-private partnership with legal aid, donating immense amounts of time and money to the cause.

Finally, we discovered that up-front investments in legal aid will yield back-end savings from social welfare expenses.

  • For every $1 spent on legal aid in the area of eviction and foreclosure cases, the state can save $2.69, primarily on shelter costs
  • For every $1 spent on legal aid in the area of domestic violence, there is a $2 return, with $1 going to the state and $1 to the federal government in Medicare savings.
  • For every $1 spent on legal aid to provide federal benefits, the state will gain $5 in economic benefits to its citizens.

We are pleased to see that MLAC received $17 million in the Conference Committee budget, a $2 million (14%) increase over last year.  Thank you to everyone who responded to our many action alerts asking you to contact your Legislators to let them know the importance of funding legal aid.

Here is the final breakdown:

FY2015 Final: $15 million (before mid-year cut of 1.79%)

FY2016

  • Request: $25 million
  • Governor’s Budget: $15 million
  • House Final: $17 million
  • Senate Final: $17.1 million
  • Conference Committee: $17 million

The BBA’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts recommended a $30 million increase over three years, so our work in this area is certainly not done.  But in the context of an overall budget increase of 3.5% and a $1.8B budget gap that confronted the new Governor, this budget lays a good foundation.

Trial Court

The Trial Court budget includes 15 different line items funding the judges, staffs, and operation of all of its departments.  The Trial Court requested a maintenance budget of $642.6 million.  This is the amount it would take to continue operations as normal.  It also provided the Legislature with 16 budget modules, essentially enhancement initiatives and projects it could choose to fund in order to update and innovate the court system.  Some examples included funding to create more specialty courts, expand Housing Court statewide, and provide additional materials to self-represented litigants.

We were satisfied with the final funding amount of $631.5 million and grateful for legislative support.  Within that number there were some particularly bright spots including increases to specialty court funding and the courts’ HOPE/MORR intensive probation program. Unfortunately, statewide expansion of Housing Court jurisdiction did not make it into the final budget.  However, we still hope to accomplish this legislatively through bills H1656/S901.

This is how the funding breaks down:

FY2015 Final: $612 million (before mid-year cut of 1.79%)

FY2016

  • Request: $642.6 million + modules
  • Governor’s Budget: $603 million
  • House Final: $622 million
  • Senate Final: $633 million
  • Conference Committee: $631.5 million

Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) (Line Items: 0321-1500, 0321-1504, 0321-1510, 0321-1518)

CPCS’s budget is comprised of four line items that include compensation for its own attorneys as well as private counselors (bar advocates).  It was the subject of a recent MBA Task Force report, which made a convincing case that public defenders, bar advocates, and assistant district attorneys merit higher salaries, and a state commission unanimously agreed with that proposition.  The Globe has also run a number of articles on the issue of underpaid attorneys in these positions (see here and here).

It is important to note when understanding CPCS’s line item that the annual budget has historically underfunded CPCS, the theory being that since CPCS cannot predict with exact certainty how many cases it will have to serve, it is provided with an initial appropriation that is supplemented as the fiscal year progresses and its expenses become clearer.  The Legislature and Governor have consistently honored and funded these requests.  The FY16 budget does not propose any changes to the current CPCS service delivery system.

Here is the CPCS budget breakdown:

FY2015 Final: $168 million

FY2016

  • Governor’s Budget: $186.7 million
  • House Final: $170.5 million
  • Senate Final: $173.6 million
  • Conference Committee: $170.6 million

Next Steps

The Governor now has a total of 10 days to review the budget (9 days left at the time of posting).  He can approve or veto the entire budget, veto or reduce specific line items, veto outside (i.e., non-monetary) sections, or submit changes as an amendment for legislative consideration.  Finally the Legislature has the chance to override any Governor’s veto with a 2/3 vote in each branch.  We hope the Governor will approve all of our line items of interest without change and we look forward to keeping you updated on the latest budget news.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

The Public-Private Pairing Behind Civil Legal Aid

As we look forward to the Boston Bar Foundation’s (BBF) popular Passport to Pairings event (for a fun two minute diversion, our Voices of the Bar page asks, “What Is Your Favorite Dynamic Duo?”), it is worth considering legal aid from the same perspective.  In many ways, both monetarily and in service, civil legal representation is a public-private partnership.

We talk all the time about the importance of legal services funding and the findings of our Investing in Justice report.  The report gives the full picture of legal services funding, explaining how a drop in IOLTA, due largely to low interest rates, coincided with a growing number of residents struggling to get by, and the increased complexity of laws and the courts.  All of this combines to place significant limits on access to justice for many individuals facing challenges relating to life necessities, such as shelter or personal safety.  These problems persist despite the combined efforts of the public-private partnership.  The report also proves that additional funding for legal aid results in a positive return on investment, saving the state on back-end costs such as emergency shelter and medical services, while also stimulating the economy by bringing more money into the state through federal benefits.

The Legislature, representing the public aspect of this partnership, has long supported civil legal aid.  On Tuesday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee released its budget proposal.  We were pleased to see increases over the House budget for CPCS ($3 million more) and the Trial Court (about $11 million more – enough to rule out the need for staff reductions) and a slight increase over last year’s funding level for legal services funding ($268,500).  The Senate process continues with floor amendments.  Senator William Brownsberger is sponsoring a $5 million amendment, seeking a total of $20 million, for the MLAC line item (0321-1600) from the Senate.  We strongly urge you to contact your Senator today and ask him or her to vote for the Senator Brownsberger MLAC amendment.  This may be our last chance to make the case for civil legal aid during this budget cycle.

From a funding perspective, both the Legislature and the bar support legal aid.  To start with, attorney registration contains an “opt-out” contribution whereby attorneys donate $50 to support legal aid unless they opt-out.  This alone raises about $1.1 million annually for MA IOLTA.  Some attorney fees also provide modest additions, such as roughly $200,000 for pro hac vice admission of out-of-state attorneys to take cases in Massachusetts.

While the Legislature has generously funded civil legal aid for decades, attorneys also voluntarily contribute millions of dollars.  They give this money to fundraising drives of agencies like Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and Community Legal Aid (CLA) as well as to foundations like the BBF and the Massachusetts Bar Foundation.

Unfortunately, these foundations historically granted money they received from IOLTA funds.  They continue to do so, but as IOLTA has dropped, so has their funding capabilities.  As a result, the total legal services grants awarded by the BBF have plummeted from just under $2 million in FY2007 to $825,500 in FY2014.  To address this huge shortfall, the BBF increased the amount of its own funds directed to civil legal aid grants by over $100,000 in each of the last several years, to the point that it funded over 46% of its FY14 grants.  Since 2009, the BBF has dedicated over $2.2 million of its own funds to legal services grants.

In addition, the private bar also donates millions of dollars’ worth of pro bono hours.  Under the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct, lawyers are expected to donate at least 25 hours per year of their time to provide free legal services to those in need.  Very few professions have any comparable standards, and Massachusetts lawyers embrace this role.  We conservatively calculated that in 2013, lawyers in the state provided in excess of 82,000 pro bono hours through four legal aid providers alone, at a value of more than $17.6 million.  This is likely only a fraction of the full amount of pro bono services provided in the state.

As you can see, both sides are doing their part:  The Legislature generously increases MLAC funding each year, even during tough economic times, and the private bar donates its time and money.  Yet there is still a long way to go.  With 58,000 individuals turned away from legal services providers in the last year due to lack of resources, everyone needs to step up.  We applaud the Legislature for the generous monetary support we know they will provide in FY16.  We urge the bar to keep up the great work and to take on one more task – please ask your Senator to vote for Senator William Brownsberger’s $5 million budget amendment in the Senate.  With this public-private partnership, we know civil legal aid can’t lose!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Legal Aid Advocacy and Awards

As we’ve said before, once you understand the workings and impact of legal aid, it’s easy to view the world through this lens.  With near daily news of Massachusetts individuals struggling with issues such as income inequality, evictions, and domestic violence, and the documented increase in families and individuals qualifying for legal aid from roughly 800,000 to one million over the last few years, the time is right for a change in how we view civil legal aid, and how we fund it.  Our Investing in Justice report continues to make that case, both in the news and at the State House.  We are pleased to share that in the last two weeks we met with:

  • Attorney General Maura Healey
  • Representative John Fernandes, House Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary
  • Minority Leader Brad Jones
  • Representative Hank Naughton
  • Representative Sarah Peake
  • Representative David Linsky
  • Representative Joseph Wagner
  • Representative Aaron Michlewitz
  • Representative Tom Sannicandro
  • Representative Chris Markey
  • Representative Carole Fiola
  • Representative Edward Coppinger
  • Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier
  • Representative Alan Silvia
  • Representative David Muradian
  • Representative Betty Poirier
  • Karen Spilka, Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee
  • Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler
  • Senator Cindy Creem
  • Senator Jamie Eldridge

We hope that each of these meetings is another step towards more funding for civil legal aid.  We are seeking a total increase of $30 million in funding over the next three years.  The additional $10 million needed this fiscal year would bring total MLAC funding to $25 million and make a huge difference for so many individuals with life-altering issues.  The next major step will be the release of the House Ways & Means Committee’s budget on April 15th.  House members will then have the opportunity to file amendments, followed by a debate on the House floor two weeks later, before a final vote.  The Senate follows a similar process next month.  (Click here for more on the budget process).

Legal aid is also playing a leading role in our 2015 Law Day Dinner.  We look forward to honoring three stalwarts of legal services – Barbara Mitchell, Al Wallis, and Jack Ward.

Mitchell, BarbaraBarbara Mitchell, Executive Director of Community Legal Services and Counseling Center (CLSACC) will be receiving the John G. Brooks Legal Services Award for her career in legal services.  In her eight years with CLSSACC, she has increased the size of that organization’s professional staff by 70%, even while legal services was experiencing precipitous declines in funding.

Before her current role with CLSACC, Mitchell spent 15 years as Managing Attorney of the Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) Family Law Unit.  While at GBLS, she dramatically expanded exemplary family law representation for low-income individuals, especially those with domestic violence cases, more than doubling the size of the Family Law Unit to 20 attorneys.  Her work as an advocate both in and outside the courtroom led to a number of positive reforms in domestic violence law in case law and legislation.

Wallis, Al W. - newAl Wallis will receive the Thurgood Marshall Award for his legal services work in the private sector as Executive Director of the Brown Rudnick Center for the Public Interest.  Wallis has served in this role since the Center’s creation in 2001, championing and coordinating the pro bono, charitable, community, and public interest activities of the firm.  He is also the Director of the Brown Rudnick Charitable Foundation Corporation, which is known for its work supporting organizations improving inner-city education.  He is a nationally recognized leader in public interest and corporate social responsibility issues both locally and nationally.

Wallis is also extremely active in the legal and social justice community.  He was elected Co-President of the National Association of Pro Bono Counsel and serves as the Co-Chair of the Boston Pro Bono Roundtable.  He has donated a great deal of time and expertise to various BBA Sections and leadership positions and is also a past president and long-time board member of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the BBA.

Ward, JackJack Ward will receive the President’s Award for his incredible 30-plus years of service at GBLS.  As Associate Director for Finance and Development until January of this year, he was responsible for overseeing all financial aspects of GBLS and its extensive fundraising efforts.  Ward remains involved in running the annual legal services development conference he helped found more than 25 years ago.  He is nationally recognized as a leader in legal services fundraising for his tireless and innovative work.

In case you’ve never been, Law Day Dinner is the largest annual bench-bar event in the Commonwealth, with over 1,300 judges, lawyers, and legislators from all practice areas and legal sectors.  Attorney General Maura Healey will provide this year’s keynote address, reflecting on the state of the legal community and the future of law.

We look forward to the opportunity to honor three fine individuals who have devoted their careers to legal aid, as we continue to advocate for increased funding for these crucial services.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association