Lawyers Journal

Legal aid funding is an investment in our communities

The current economic disaster is devastating the lives of low-income people throughout Massachusetts. And they are suffering twice - first, because low-income people are being especially hard-hit by job losses; and second, because the drastic changes in the Commonwealth's own budget are forcing sharp cuts in public programs that are vital to low-income citizens' needs for health care, housing, security and nutrition.

Why should members of the Massachusetts Bar Association care about this situation?

Because during an economic downturn - especially a protracted one such as we are experiencing in this region - domestic violence issues are exacerbated and more people are putting pressure on our critical systems for unemployment insurance, Medicare benefits, health-care coverage, child-support services, housing … the list goes on.

A first and crucial line of defense is the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). Legal aid helps those among us most in need; most vulnerable; most at risk. Legal aid also helps domestic-abuse victims and their children secure their rights to support, possession of the marital home, and health-care coverage. It can help a person unravel complex laws and regulations, giving them clear information about and access to health-care coverage, unemployment insurance, bankruptcy assistance, unpaid wages and more. And legal aid gets results that make a difference in your constituents' lives, whether that is a home of one's own, a fair income, freedom from abuse, protection from corrupt schemes, or needed health care.

Most importantly, legal aid ensures that justice is available to all - even in hard times.

Equal access to justice is not only an issue for legal aid but also an issue for the judicial system and for the Commonwealth. Yet, even before the current economic crisis, the vital programs funded by MLAC were forced to turn away a majority of eligible callers. Today, funding from the Commonwealth is $16 million below the level that is needed.

Preserving citizens' access to civil legal aid is more important now than ever before. The 18 local and statewide legal aid programs funded by MLAC provide legal advice and representation to residents whose incomes are below 125% of the federal poverty line - that is, individuals whose incomes are below $22,062 per year for a family of four or $10,738 for a single person.

In her House budget, Governor Swift proposed level funding for MLAC in the amount of $4.8 million in general support, plus $2,521,289 for Battered Women's Legal Assistance, $550,906 for the Medicare Advocacy Project, and $1,204,604 for the Disability Benefits Project.

In requesting only level funding, MLAC is sensitive to the state's current economic plight and knows well that we all need to sacrifice and do the best we can in these difficult times. And in doing its part, MLAC is pursuing every effort to expand its sources of funding for legal aid, with some impressive results. I am proud to note that donations from law firms and individuals have increased by 47 percent over the past two years.

In case you have any doubts, legal aid is a solid investment that builds strong communities. Families are rescued from homelessness, absentee parents are required to pay child support, victims of domestic violence gain custody of their children, elderly victims of financial scams recoup their losses, and the courts run more smoothly. All of this is possible through the state's budget allocation. That, to me, is a great investment in those who need it the most.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association