Lawyers Journal

Coalition changing the face of legal aid

Thanks to the work of the Massachusetts Bar Association and its partners in the Equal Justice Coalition, the legislature is increasingly aware of the importance of legal aid for low-income people in civil cases. The coalition, which now includes 150 organizational and individual members, has added significant weight to efforts to secure adequate funding for civil legal aid programs.

While defendants in criminal cases are guaranteed representation, low-income people in civil cases must compete for limited legal aid, which depends on variable and always inadequate public funding. Legal aid programs are forced to choose among the battered woman seeking custody of her children, the elder losing his home to a second mortgage scam, the garment worker cheated out of overtime pay and the family unfairly denied health coverage.

The situation worsened dramatically in 1996 when Massachusetts lost 55 percent of its federal legal aid funding. Two years later, when a survey revealed that three out of five eligible callers to legal aid programs in Massachusetts were turned away due to a shortage of resources, the MBA, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and the Boston Bar Association decided to take action. They formed the Equal Justice Coalition, pulling together a broad spectrum of legal, community, educational, religious, social service, business and labor organizations. The coalition took the case for legal aid to the state legislature.

Public support strong

The coalition had a lot to work with. Public support is strong for the concept of free legal assistance to those who can't afford private representation. A poll conducted for the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association found that 89 percent of Americans agree that legal help should be provided to low-income people in civil cases. In fact, many Americans assume that low-income people have the right to an attorney in civil as well as criminal cases.

Harnessing public support and conveying it to the legislature became the coalition's first priority. The strongest support came from members of the private bar, who see the need first hand in the courts.

The coalition began organizing the "Walk to the Hill for Legal Aid," an annual event for private attorneys. Sponsored by the MBA and BBA, the walk has consistently drawn about 200 attorneys to the State House, where they meet with their legislators to make the case for legal aid funding. Co-sponsors of the Walk include the Worcester County Bar Association, Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, Women's Bar Association, Asian-American Law Association, Massachusetts Black Women Attorneys, Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Bar Association and National Lawyers Guild.

Attorneys also participate in letter-writing and e-mail campaigns, and corporate counsel weigh in with support letters to legislative leaders. Last year's corporate counsel letter was signed by the general counsel of 35 leading Massachusetts corporations. The response from legislators has been heartening.

Going for it

During its first year, the coalition determined that funding for legal aid from all sources would have to essentially triple to meet the need. The state's share of funding is appropriated in the budget to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which makes grants to legal aid programs across the state. To reach full funding, the coalition found that the state's share would have to increase by $18 million.

Although funding jumps of this magnitude are virtually unheard of, the coalition decided to make the case for full funding in the FY01 budget and let the chips fall where they may. The result was striking - legal aid received an additional $1.5 million from the state that first year, far less than the $18 million requested, but a full 25 percent more than the previous year's allotment.

Economic realities

The second year of the campaign was moving along at a similar clip when the bottom fell out of the economy. The House had added another $500,000 to its legal aid budget while the Senate had added $1.5 million. The final figure, which would be decided by a House and Senate conference committee, looked certain to be another step closer to full funding. But a precipitous fall in state revenues changed the rosy picture. When the legislature finished the budget several months later (and several months late), legal aid received only level funding. Still, level funding compared quite favorably with what had happened to other budget accounts, and coalition members breathed a sigh of relief. In the most recent budget, cuts to human services programs were even more drastic, but legal aid again survived with only small reductions.

Until the state's economy begins to recover, significant increases in legal aid funding remain extremely unlikely. This reality is especially difficult because the economic decline means that more people meet legal aid's income eligibility guidelines of under 125 percent of poverty, or $22,625 per year for a family of four, so the demand for services is up.

In this climate, the work of the coalition is more important than ever. By educating the legislature about the strong base of support for legal aid, the Equal Justice Coalition is changing the face of the program for many legislators, who are increasingly seeing legal aid not as a peripheral or optional program, but a central and essential part of the justice system.

The Equal Justice Coalition is chaired by Stephen H. Oleskey, a partner at Hale & Dorr. Please lend your support to the coalition's efforts by having your firm sign up as a member or signing up yourself as an individual member. For more information, contact Equal Justice Coalition director Pattye Comfort at (617) 338-2299 x115.

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