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June

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Lawyers Journal

Joining hands for equal justice

The Massachusetts Constitution provides,"Every subject of the commonwealthought to … obtainright and justice freely, and without beingobliged to purchase it; completely, andwithout any denial; promptly, and withoutdelay; conformably to the laws." Both theMassachusetts and the United StatesConstitutions mandate that indigent citizensfacing criminal charges must be competentlyrepresented. When the commonwealth failsto provide experienced defense counsel, citizenscharged with crimes are denied the fundamentalrights of a fair and speedy trialwith effective assistance of counsel. Whenlegal services for the poor are denied, we allsuffer.

At the foundation of the MassachusettsBar Association's mission is the goal to "promotereform in the law, to facilitate theadministration of justice." The Boston BarAssociation traces its lineage to John Adams,whose dedication to equal justice continuesto inspire the BBA. Together, the MBA andthe BBA have preserved a proud history ofpromoting funding for legal aid. When theneed has become most urgent, both barassociations have joined hands and takenaction to ensure equal access to justice.

In recognition of the long history theassociations have enjoyed in preserving theright to effective assistance of counsel forthe poor, the Massachusetts Committee forPublic Counsel Services and the MassachusettsLegal Assistance Corporation recentlynominated the MBA and BBA to receivethe American Bar Association and NationalLegal Aid and Defender Association's 2007Harrison Tweed Award. Together, MLACand CPCS are responsible for virtually allrepresentation of the poor in Massachusetts.The MBA was greatly flattered bynominations from organizations as distinguishedas MLAC and CPCS.

The Harrison Tweed Award was createdin 1956 to recognize the extraordinaryachievements of state and local bar associationswhich develop or significantly expandprograms to increase access to civil legalservices or criminal defense services forindigents. I am pleased to report that theMBA and BBA have been named as thejoint recipients of the 2007 HarrisonTweed Award. The MBA is honored toshare in the award with our friends and colleaguesat the BBA.

In celebrating our achievement, we heraldnot just the MBA's institutional dedicationto equal access to justice, we celebratethe successful collaboration between thecommonwealth's two largest bar associations.The benefit our citizenry has derivedas a result of such co-venture evidences thesynergy created when bar associations combinetheir resources, energy and will.The collaborative efforts of the bar inadvancing equal access to justice are notnew. In 1999, the MBA, BBA and MLACcreated the Equal Justice Coalition. TheEJC's membership now comprises a diversegroup of more than 180 individuals andorganizations, including many bar associationsthroughout the commonwealth.

The mission of the EJC is to expandaccess to justice through support for statefunding for legal services. The EJC'sAnnual Walk to the Hill for Legal Aid hasmade a powerful impact on Beacon Hillover the past seven years. This year, arecord-breaking 500 attorneys urged theirlegislators to increase the commonwealth'sappropriation for civil legal aid. The EJChas succeeded, as well, in recruiting generalcounsel in leading Massachusetts companiesto become involved in advocating forincreased state funding for civil legal servicesprogram. The EJC's efforts have resultedin a $1 million increase in the commonwealth'sappropriation for civil legal aid in2005.

The MBA and BBA's collaborativeefforts in ensuring legal services for indigentindividuals are not limited to theEqual Justice Coalition. Both associationshave a proud history of assisting CPCS inits efforts to establish and maintain effectiveassistance of counsel in court-appointedmatters. Both associations have performedextraordinary work in advocatingfor fair and reasonable compensation forbar advocates. Collaborating with bar associationsthroughout the commonwealth,the MBA and BBA worked to ensure passageof landmark legislation in 2005increasing private counsel hourly rates andcreating a statewide network virtually doublingthe size of CPCS' attorney staff.Importantly, both associations have continuouslysupported county-based bar advocateprograms.

Although the Massachusetts legal communitycontinues to make strides inimproving access to justice for allMassachusetts citizens, it is a frustratingreality that the resources available continuallyfall short of the need. With a budgetdeficit over $1 billion, the hard-won gainsfor the right to counsel have becomeendangered once again. Indeed, were thebudget proposal set forth in House 1 to beenacted by the Legislature, the commonwealthwould be taking a step backward inthe fight to provide our neediest withcounsel. As before, the MBA and BBA haveresponded by demanding full funding forMLAC and CPCS.

At the core of our ability to meet theneed for legal assistance is increased fundingat the state level. Such funding willensure all Massachusetts citizens have accessto appropriate legal counsel regardless ofthe economic barriers they may face.

Let'scontinue to level the playing field. By properlyfunding legal aid, we will have an overwhelminglypositive impact on the livelihoodof many low-income familiesthroughout our commonwealth. We urgeour legislators, hence, to continue theirgood work in ensuring adequate representationfor our most vulnerable citizens andrequest that the General Court restore thefunding necessary to ensure equal access tojustice.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association