What Is Civil Legal Aid?

For more than 40 years, the Boston Bar Association has worked on the issue of civil legal aid – how to connect constituents with resources, how to preserve and expand those resources, and how to secure adequate funding.  Throughout each year, the BBA partners with community organizations to put on programs and trainings that provide critical support to civil legal aid initiatives.

As the new President of the BBA, I am personally honored to continue this long legacy of assisting the underrepresented.  My first exposure to the legal community was through the work of attorneys at the Center for Law and Education when I was pursuing my Master’s degree in education.  Over the course of my internship, I encountered countless stories of young people incarcerated for minor infractions, such as truancy, who were being denied special education services in juvenile detention facilities.  The personal stories of these kids, many of whom came from troubled families, were the victims of abuse, or were shuttled between foster homes, really moved me.  Observing the passionate advocacy of the dedicated staff attorneys, I realized how much the legal community could do to assist those who otherwise would be helpless, and I was inspired to join the profession to work on that cause.

I plan to lead the BBA toward strengthening our efforts in this area, and we hope to invest our membership in this cause as well.  But we understand that not everyone is familiar with the facts and figures associated with civil legal aid. Here are the basics:

What is civil legal aid?  When we discuss civil legal aid, we mean non-criminal legal aid in areas where crucial rights are at stake.  This covers housing, domestic violence, federal benefits, asylum, and a range of other areas.

How do people receive civil legal aid?  Generally, in order to qualify for civil legal aid in Massachusetts, an individual must earn less than $15,000 in a year, while the income of a family of four must be less than $30,000.  Without access to free legal services, such people would have incredible difficulty hiring and maintaining legal counsel, and therefore have no recourse in seeking justice other than to try to represent themselves.

Where does civil legal aid funding come from?  State funding for civil legal aid is mostly directed through a $15 million appropriation to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), though this amount is only about a quarter of the statewide total civil legal aid budget.  The rest comes from interest on lawyers’ trust accounts (IOLTA), private funding sources, and the federal government, in part through Title III of the Older Americans Act and the Legal Services Corporation.  This can lead to variability: for example, IOLTA is a major source of civil legal aid funding, but if IOLTA funds are down – and they have declined dramatically in recent years as interest rates have fallen to near zero – then funding for civil legal aid correspondingly decreases.

Finally, the most important question:

How can I get involved?  Each January, hundreds of BBA members “Walk to the Hill” to lobby their state representatives on the issue of civil legal aid.  We encourage you to join us at the next Walk to the Hill at lunchtime on January 29, 2015.  Many firms send a group as well; if your firm does not, we would encourage you to spearhead this effort internally.  More information is available through the Equal Justice Coalition at www.equaljusticecoalition.org.

You can financially support civil legal aid by making a donation to local legal services programs, or by contributing to the Boston Bar Foundation (BBF).  The BBF distributes privately raised funds and IOLTA funds to providers of civil legal aid in the Boston area.  This year, the BBF provided $825,500 in grants to 23 community organizations that work to provide legal services to those in need.  More information is available at http://bostonbarfoundation.org/donate.

We’d also like to point anybody interested in this cause to www.massprobono.org.  This site not only lists local civil legal aid organizations, but it also highlights myriad volunteer opportunities across subject areas.

Finally, we look forward to the imminent release of the Report of the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, which will offer much more information about the unmet need for civil legal aid in the state and provide a path toward meeting that need.  But our work will certainly not end with the report, and we will continue to advocate for civil legal aid throughout the course of the year and beyond.