More than 600 attorneys and legal advocates packed the Statehouse Great Hall on Feb. 28 for the ninth annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. The standing room only crowd set a new record for the event.
Following the half-hour rally, attendees visited their legislators and urged them to support a $5 million increase in civil legal aid for fiscal 2009 for a total of $14.7 million. Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed a $12 million budget, a boost of $2.4 million.
“It remains a frustrating reality that the resources available continue to fall short of what we need,” Massachusetts Bar Association President David W. White Jr. told the mass of supporters. “Let us remember the voices of the people who are barely heard, and let the budget remember them as well.”
The shortage of resources means legal aid programs turn away nearly half of all applicants with serious legal needs who meet the income limit of 125 percent of the federal poverty line, or $510 a week for a family of four. Approximately 700,000 Massachusetts residents are eligible for civil legal aid.
“The sad reality [is] that legal services are stretched so thin we must turn away the majority of people who are desperate for legal help,” said Kathy B. Weinman, president-elect of the Boston Bar Association. “Increased legal aid funding for legal aid is the only thing to do.”
As the level of foreclosures rise, now at more than 75 percent, legal advocates predict the need for civil legal aid will surge even higher. In addition to housing issues, civil legal aid assists citizens with domestic violence, medical insurance and labor discrimination issues.
“Legal aid is not a handout to the poor. It’s about making the justice system accessible,” said Steve Oleskey, chairman of the Equal Justice Coalition.
Legal aid programs are often the last resort for individuals who have nowhere else to turn. Janice Gray of Haverhill is one of those examples. Janice and her husband, Lou, had contacted and been turned down by 14 other agencies before Neighborhood Legal Services in Lawrence agreed to take their case.
The Grays, who have six children, received word last fall that their Haverhill home would be auctioned off on Jan. 8 because they fell behind on their mortgage payments. The couple’s original mortgage rate of 11 percent interest ballooned to 14 percent, a change they did not expect.
A lawyer with NLS was able to secure a new mortgage at a fixed rate of 7 percent after determining the lender was guilty of more than a dozen consumer protection violations, including inflating the Grays income to obtain the loan. “The help we got from Neighborhood Legal Services was the greatest,” Gray said.
Hearing the Grays’ story is poignant because it demonstrates the pressing need for civil legal aid, said Robert Sable, executive director of Greater Boston Legal Services. “The sad truth is for everyone like Miss Gray we can help, there’s another Miss Gray with a problem just as urgent who we can’t help.”