Gov. Patrick makes surprise appearance at annual Walk to the Hill

Issue February 2010 By Jennifer Rosinski

The 11th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid received a boost moments before it began this year when Gov. Deval Patrick publicly announced that his fiscal 2011 state budget included level funding for legal services.

Following a press conference at the Statehouse, Patrick paid a surprise visit to the Great Hall and addressed the standing-room-only crowd of legal aid supporters.

"I apologize for crashing the party, but I just wanted to come by and tell you how much I appreciate you being here," Patrick said. "Everybody in this room shares, as I do, a commitment to doing everything we can for people for whom access to justice isn't real."

The governor told the crowd of hundreds that his budget plan calls for legal services to be level-funded at $9.5 million. The House and Senate will vote on their own versions of the budget in the coming months. A compromise measure will then be sent to the governor.

"I want you to use today to fight for it," Patrick told the audience of his legal aid budget. "In government, there are multiple bottom lines … There are human, individual bottom lines, and they count too."

The state's recent economic troubles have resulted in plummeting revenue for civil legal aid. Income from the Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program has dropped 63 percent since fiscal 2008. On top of that, that civil legal aid budget line item was reduced from $11 million in fiscal 2009 to $9.5 million in fiscal 2010.

"At the core of our ability to meet the needs for legal assistance is funding at the state level," said Massachusetts Bar Association President-elect Denise Squillante. "Such funding will help ensure appropriate legal counsel regardless of the economic barriers Massachusetts citizens may face."

Squillante spoke at the event along with Boston Bar Association President John J. Regan, who said that need is even greater now as the state and country deal with an intense recession. Requests for legal aid are up 25 to 40 percent.

"Our courts are full of low-income people with critical legal needs who attempt to navigate the legal process themselves," Regan said.

Eligibility for legal aid is set at 125 percent of the federal poverty level, which is equivalent to $530 a week for a family of four.

The gathering heard a moving speech from a former legal aid client whose attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services won a precedent-setting decision, which ruled that caretakers of children with disabilities may search for part-time work without affecting their eligibility for unemployment benefits.

"I knew I had to make a choice between my work and my family," said Carmelita T. of Mattapan, who requested that her full last name not be used. When Carmelita realized there was no option of part-time work at her job, she quit to care for her 7-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with emotional and psychological disorders.

"The greatest change is in my daughter," Carmelita said, her voice cracking as she spoke. "She is happy child now."

The event - co-sponsored by the Equal Justice Coalition, MBA, BBA and 29 local and specialty bar associations - culminated with legal aid advocates visiting their legislators and asking that they protect funding for civil legal aid in the fiscal 2011 budget.