|MBA President Richard C. Van Nostrand addresses the overflow crowd of lawyers and legal aid advocates at the annual Walk to the Hill.
"Access to justice and equal protection under the law are the basic rights of every citizen in this commonwealth. But the system in place to provide those rights is in critical danger," MBA President Richard C. Van Nostrand said as more than 350 attorneys from across Massachusetts gathered at the State House on March 10 for the fifth annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid.
Sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Equal Justice Coalition and 20 local, county and specialty bars, the event rallied participants to urge their legislators to ensure that legal aid is level-funded in next year's budget.
Civil legal aid programs, which provide free legal advice and assistance to low-income people in non-criminal matters, stood on the brink of elimination last year when Gov. Mitt Romney vetoed all their funding in the FY04 state budget. After a public outcry and a large and enthusiastic turnout at the 2003 Walk to the Hill, legislators voted overwhelmingly to override the veto.
Current funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. (MLAC) stands at $3.3 million for general support, $2,5 million for battered women's assistance, $544,000 for medical and home health assistance and $1.2 million for legal aid for disability benefits issues.
MLAC has requested level funding for FY05.
"The fiscal resources that our state government has available to protect our most vulnerable citizens has shrunken dramatically. In the harsh economic reality of our depressed economy," Van Nostrand said, "we have had to face the reality that we cannot expect a budget that will fully fund the legal needs of the poor. In an effort to reflect that reality, we presently seek only to stabilize the funding received in the current fiscal year … specifically, we seek level funding for FY05."
|Van Nostrand talks about the critical need for legal aid funding with Robert A. DeLeo, chairman of the House Committee on Bills in Third Reading.
Van Nostrand cited statistics he called "deeply troubling" as the chief reasons for legislators to support the MLAC budget request. Among them:
• Nearly 10 percent of Massachusetts citizens live in poverty.
• The state's unemployment rate of 5.9 percent is now higher than the national rate and more than double the number of unemployed citizens three years ago;
• 53 percent of our low-income citizens reported an unmet legal need, according to a recent Legal Needs Study commissioned by MLAC.
"As we all know, just being income eligible for legal aid does not mean that a person will receive that support," Van Nostrand said. "More than half of those eligible for legal aid have to be turned away for lack of funds. Many of these people wind up in court unrepresented. Unquestionably, this puts them at a severe disadvantage in court. It also negatively impacts an already overstressed judicial system by the extra time and attention that pro se litigants require.
"The availability of legal aid helps to ensure fairness and it helps in our judicial system's effort to provide the timely delivery of our justice.
"Those who are in the most need, our poorest citizens, have the weakest voice. Our senators and representatives rarely hear from them," Van Nostrand said. "We, as attorneys and caring individuals who have been blessed with food on our tables and roofs over our heads and satisfactory health care and a job, must be their voice. We must fight for the funding that will unbar the door and make access to justice more than just a catch phrase."
Before heading off to meet with their legislators, Walk to the Hill participants also heard remarks from EJC Chair Stephen Oleskey and Boston Bar Association President Renee Landers.