Section Review

Comments from the Access to Justice Section Chairwoman

Lawyers who commit their time and resources to pro bono work, to community education, and to professional associations demonstrate their commitment to an ideal of our profession that encompasses service of the public good. For members of the Access to Justice Section and the MBA who share these ideals, this year has presented three overarching challenges: addressing the critical need for adequate funding for legal services during this difficult economic period; ensuring the continued access to an independent judicial system; and, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on our nation, critically evaluating legislative and regulatory proposals to safeguard our fundamental constitutional rights.

Homelessness, hunger, domestic abuse, and inadequate health care are a reality for many of our citizens. The prosperity of the last decade was not a "rising tide that lifted all boats." Rather, during the past decade the economic gap between the richest one fifth of Massachusetts' citizens and the poorest one fifth grew: from 1990 to 2000 the income of the poorest fifth declined 7 percent, while the income of the richest fifth increased by 13.5 percent.1 The number of families living in poverty rose in eight of our 14 counties.2 Twenty percent of our children are poor. Even though on a scale of social indicators Massachusetts is in a tie for 16th place nationally, we tie with Georgia for 39th place on child poverty.3

These numbers translate into real hardship for low-income individuals and families - the Economic Policy Institute reports that Census Bureau "measures of hardship" show that in 1995, over 38 percent of families in the bottom-income fifth had trouble paying for at least one basic necessity - food, housing or health care.4 Even through the boom years, legal services was not funded at a level sufficient to meet the legal needs of the poor, and in this more difficult economic period, these needs will surely increase.

The substantial pro bono work done by lawyers throughout the state is a significant way to address this problem, but it cannot solve it; continued state funding is critical to legal services programs. To help address this need, in March the MBA joined with other statewide and local bar associations to sponsor the third annual Walk to the Hill, so that together we could voice our support for adequate funding for legal services. This event, attended by more than 100 attorneys, and supported by many more, has helped to keep state funding for legal services relatively intact. On behalf of the Access to Justice Section, I wish to extend a sincere thanks to Carol DiMento for her leadership on this issue, and to all MBA members who gave their support to this effort.

As attorneys, we are privileged to play a role in this extraordinary system of justice and, more than most, understand the importance of access of all to an impartial and independent judiciary. Although the current budgetary crisis will require sacrifices in many critical areas, it is important that the court system does not have to assume a disproportionate share of that burden. Confronting another budgetary crisis over 10 years ago, Chief Justice Paul Liacos said,

"The maintenance of an effective and efficient court system is not an optional task of state government . . . It is, instead, a constitutionally mandated obligation. History has shown repeatedly that the need for an effective judicial branch increases during periods of fiscal austerity. Without a properly functioning judicial branch, there is no liberty, no peace, no order, no guarantee of fairness. Without an independent judiciary even those citizens who never come to court will be at risk in their lives, their liberty, and their property."

First Annual Report on the State of the Judiciary, Chief Justice Paul J. Liacos, 75 Massachusetts Law Review, December 1990 at 143.

In this period of fiscal austerity, the MBA has vigorously argued for adequate funding for the court and to maintain judicial independence. After the MBA's Lobby Day for Court Funding, held May 7, the House voted to restore much of the state court's budget for FY03, and shelved proposals to change court administration. Conveying the importance of these issues will continue to require advocacy by our members, and I urge all who can to participate in MBA efforts.

Nationally and locally, the terrorist attack on our nation has required us to critically evaluate the resolution of the tension between national security and civil liberty. This issue is not new, but resounds through our history, and our principles of civil liberty were forged in times that seemed as perilous as these. On the recommendation of the Presidential Task Force on the Preservation of Rights, Liberties, and Access to Justice, this fall the MBA will be sponsoring "Conversations on Law and Liberty in Times of Crisis," a curriculum series, developed by the ABA, designed to encourage public discussion on the role of law and liberty in our society. This program provides an opportunity for lawyers to become involved in schools in a direct and meaningful way, to foster commitment to our constitutional democracy and our ideal of a just society, to encourage respect for all in our diverse society, and to advance the understanding of the role of our legal system in supporting these ideals. I commend this program, as well as the other community-service programs sponsored by the MBA, to all MBA members, but especially those whose practices severely limit the direct pro bono work they may provide.

Finally, I wish to extend my thanks to all members of the Access to Justice Section Council for their service this year: Anthony Benedetti, Sam Berk, Jacqui Bowman, Ken MacIver, Bethany Mandell, Tom Manning, Neil McKittrick, Lucy Reyes, William Sullivan, Frank Talty, Jim Van Buren, and Judge Daniel Winslow. They represent diverse practice areas, but share a vision of our profession that encompasses the ideals of service to clients and litigants, and service of the public good. Our association, and we, are richer for their commitment of time, creative ideas, energy and talent.

End notes

1. J. Bernstein, H. Boushey, et al., Pulling Apart, A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends, at 23-28 (Economic Policy Institute, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) (April 2002).[back]

2. Rodriquez & Dedman, Welfare Plunged in '90s While Poverty Persisted, Boston Globe, June 5, 2002, at A1.[back]

3. Miringoff, Needs Improvement, Bay State's Report Card on Social Progress Tells Us What We're Doing Well, Where We're Failing, Boston Globe, May 26, 2002, at D8.[back]

4. J. Bernstein, L. Mishel, et al., Any Way You Cut It, Income Inequity on the Rise Regardless of How It's Measured, at 14 (Economic Policy Institute, Briefing Paper) (September 2000).[back]

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