Lawyers seek millions more in legal aid funds at Walk to Hill

Issue March 2012 By Jennifer Rosinski

Hundreds of lawyers from across Massachusetts converged on the Statehouse Jan. 26 to implore their legislators for $14.5 million in civil legal aid funding in the fiscal 2013 budget.

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation called for a $5 million increase over the $9.5 million appropriated last year, though $1 million was added later as part of a supplemental budget to bring the fiscal 2012 total to $10.5 million.

The 13th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid featured a surprise visit from Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, who told a standing-room-only crowd in the Great Hall of Flags that he is con dent the governor will sign a supplemental budget to increase MLAC's funding this current fiscal year "because he believes in what you do.

"You represent people who have been disenfranchised …You make sure they are heard," Murray said. "Thank you for your advocacy."

In the past four years alone, MLAC has seen its funding from the Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts drop from $17 million to just over $3 million. At a time when the number of Massachusetts residents qualifying for civil legal aid has jumped 11 percent, to just under 1 million people, MLAC has reduced its staff attorneys by 34 percent.

"The free lunch from IOLTA is gone," Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Ralph D. Gants said. "The legal problems of the poor have not dwindled. They, too, have grown."

Gants said there is no way to ask for less than a $5 million increase, which he considers a "sound investment" for the commonwealth. "Legal services ensure the promise of justice for all is more than just a promise," he said.

MBA President Richard P. Campbell commended the governor for stepping up and recommending $12 million for MLAC for fiscal 2013, but said it's not enough.

"Legal service organizations throughout the state are being pushed to their breaking point as they are faced with drastic cuts in IOLTA funds and an ever increasing need for services," he said. "The sad truth is that the resources fall short of the need for legal aid."

Increased funding is critical to restore service levels and prevent further cuts to legal aid programs, as they have been struggling to meet demand due to a 78 percent decrease in revenue since scal 2008 in IOLTA funding.

"Thousands of low-income Massachusetts residents with critical problems … have to be turned away when they seek legal aid," Boston Bar Association President Lisa C. Goodheart said.

Without the help of Greater Boston Legal Services, Remon Jourdan of Randolph would never have been able to fix a discrepancy between MassHealth and his doctor that left his personal care attendants without pay for one month. Jourdan, who has been confined to a wheelchair since a car accident 10 years ago, said GBLS was able to convince MassHealth to retroactively pay his attendants.

"It was like a weight lifted from my shoulders," Jourdan said. "I know it might not seem like a big case, but for me it was huge."

The event was sponsored by the MBA, Equal Justice Coalition and Boston Bar Association, and co-sponsored by 30 county and specialty bar associations.