In remarks delivered on Jan. 27 at Talk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd spoke of the need for increased state funding for organizations that provide civil legal aid to vulnerable low income Massachusetts residents, a need made more urgent during the pandemic. Walk to the Hill, an annual event in its 22nd year, was renamed “Talk to the Hill” this year and held virtually due to the pandemic.
“The tragic events of the past year have focused our attention on the many inequities in our society. The pandemic has created unprecedented disruptions in employment, education, childcare, and everyday life. And the resulting hardships have fallen most heavily on those who can least afford them,” said Chief Justice Budd.
Organized by the Equal Justice Coalition, the event called for increased funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), the largest funding source for civil legal aid organizations in the state, by $6 million in the Fiscal Year 2022 state budget, for a total appropriation of $35 million.
According to MLAC, legal aid organizations in Massachusetts turn away 56% of eligible residents seeking help. Residents whose income is at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level ($32,750/year for a family of four) are eligible for civil legal aid.
Chief Justice Budd said that data from the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) shows that over half of the clients served by state legal services organizations receiving LSC grants are people of color.
“If we are truly committed to eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in our society, one of the simplest steps that we can take toward that goal is to make it possible for more people to receive legal aid,” she said.
“We are very fortunate to live in a state where the Governor and the Legislature understand these issues,” Chief Justice Budd said. “In recent years, the Legislature has provided steady increases in funding for legal services. As a result, we have seen significant improvements in the percentages of people receiving assistance.”
Still, Chief Justice Budd noted, legal services organizations must turn away over half of those who ask for help. “They do not have the resources to meet everyone’s needs,” she said. “And as you all know, those needs are especially great right now, with all of the problems caused by the pandemic. Employment, housing, family law, domestic violence, consumer debt, and immigration are all areas of particular concern.”
“For every dollar spent on civil legal aid, MLAC tells us, we reap roughly two dollars in economic benefits for the Commonwealth and its residents. But more importantly, the additional legal assistance that dollar provides may be the difference for someone between having a home and losing it, making ends meet or going without heat, staying safe or living in fear,” said Chief Justice Budd.
The program began with a tribute to the late Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, who championed civil legal aid funding.
In addition to SJC Chief Justice Budd, speakers included: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey; Michael Curry, Esq., President and CEO of Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers; Massachusetts Bar Association President Denise Murphy; Boston Bar Association President Martin Murphy; Lynne M. Parker, Executive Director of Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation; Jacquelynne Bowman, Executive Director of Greater Boston Legal Services; and civil legal aid clients who received assistance during the pandemic. Louis Tompros, Chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, hosted the event.
Following the speaking portion of the event, lawyers, law students, and advocates in attendance moved into virtual breakout rooms to speak directly to state legislators to encourage them to increase funding in the Fiscal Year 2022 state budget for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. The Equal Justice Coalition is a collaboration of the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that low income residents with critical, non-criminal legal matters would have access to legal information, advice and representation. Civil legal aid organizations provide support to individuals in cases related to housing, employment, family law, domestic violence, health care, education, immigration, and protection of seniors, among other civil matters