Every subject of the commonwealth ought to… obtain right and justice freely, and without being obliged to purchase it; completely, and without any denial; promptly, and without delay; conformably to the laws.
- Massachusetts Constitution, Part 1, Art. 11
Despite the promise embedded in the Massachusetts Constitution, every day, many low-income residents in the commonwealth are denied access to justice because they cannot afford to hire an attorney to help them navigate the civil legal system. By providing free legal advice and representation to domestic violence victims, families on the verge of homelessness, elder victims of consumer fraud and others like them, the 12 civil legal services programs throughout Massachusetts help bring the scales of justice into balance. Residents with incomes below 125 percent of the poverty line ($481 per week for a family of four) rely on these local programs for assistance with serious civil legal issues. However, legal services funding, which comes from the state and federal governments and a variety of private sources, is insufficient to meet the need. As a result, the majority of eligible people who call a legal aid program for help must be turned away.
The Equal Justice Coalition was created in 1999 by the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. Its membership comprises a diverse group of more than 170 individuals and organizations united in the conviction that adequate funding for civil legal services is needed to make the constitutional imperative of justice for all a reality. The EJC's mission is to expand access to justice through support for state funding for legal services.
The private bar has shown spectacular common cause with civil legal aid by packing the Great Hall of the Statehouse for the EJC's annual "Walk to the Hill for Legal Aid" for the past six years. At last year's walk, a record 400 attorneys used their lunch hour to come to Beacon Hill to urge their legislators to increase the state's appropriation for civil legal aid. These 400 attorneys came from 34 firms in the downtown Boston area and from as far away as Worcester. This very impressive crowd included managing partners, bar presidents and law school deans. Co-sponsoring the event were 21 county, minority and specialty bar associations.
The EJC has also been successful in recruiting general counsel of leading Massachusetts companies to get involved in advocating for increased state funding for civil legal services programs. This year, 80 general counsel (including the general counsel for Verizon and General Electric) signed a letter to Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and the legislative leadership urging increased funding for legal aid.
Last year's efforts resulted in a $1 million increase in the state's appropriation for civil legal aid. This was a tremendous victory, in no small part attributable to the hundreds of private attorneys who participated in the "Walk to the Hill" and responded to e-mail alerts throughout the yearlong state budget campaign.
Meeting the need for civil legal aid will take a lot more than a $1 million increase, and it is for this reason that the EJC needs you to join your colleagues at this year's "Walk to the Hill." Please come to the Great Hall in the Statehouse at 11 a.m. on March 7, 2006, or better yet, organize a contingent at your firm to come with you! Your lunch hour can make the difference for low-income people who desperately need civil legal services.
For more information, please visit www.equaljusticecoalition.org.