Lawyers Journal

SJC’s Judge Gants leads crowd at annual Walk to the Hill

Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Ralph D. Gants joined more than 500 people in calling for adequate legal aid funding at the Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid on Feb. 22 at the Statehouse's Great Hall of Flags.

The annual event calls on legislators to protect state funding for programs providing civil legal aid to low-income Massachusetts residents. This year's Walk to the Hill marked the first time a sitting justice on the SJC attended. As co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Initiative, Gants made a plea to the governor and lawmakers to provide justice for all.

Massachusetts Bar Association President-elect Richard P. Campbell told the overflow crowd, "As we make strides [in providing access to justice], it's frustrating that resources continue to fall short. In the long road to passing a budget, please remind legislators that it's their constituents who face foreclosure and who face court orders."

Advocates have been encouraged by Gov. Deval Patrick's decision, in the midst of ongoing economic difficulties, to recommend level funding of $9.5 million for Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. this coming fiscal year. State funding is more critical than ever, as a 66 percent decrease in revenue from the Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts program (IOLTA) since 2008 has taken its toll, as has a 55 percent cut in grants to legal aid programs by MLAC during that time.

Natasha Torres, an MLAC client, told of her battle to keep the Oxford home she and her mother bought in 2005.

Torres, who uses a wheelchair, had difficulty finding a suitable apartment, so when a real estate agency suggested they buy their own home, it seemed like a good idea. Massachusetts Rehab helped them make the house handicapped-accessible. However, eight months after the purchase, her mother was laid off. The two sought loan modification assistance from the lender, to no avail. After her mother found another job and Torres found a part-time job, they received notice that the house would be put up for auction. They sought help from MLAC.

An attorney from MLAC has so far kept them in the home. Along the way, their mortgage lender went bankrupt and they had to re-file loan modification papers a second time. The family's economic situation has improved considerably, but they now await federal help.

"We have never needed you more than we do now," said Robert Sable, executive director of Greater Boston Legal Services in his remarks to the Walk to the Hill audience. "This is the worst fiscal crisis I have seen in 20 years."

For every client such as Torres who has received help, Sable said, the agency turns two away. Level funding won't take care of that shortfall, but without it, it will be much worse, he said.

Walk to the Hill is sponsored by the Equal Justice Coalition, Massachusetts Bar Association and Boston Bar Association, and it is co-sponsored by 30 county and specialty bar associations.

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