This week, the report of the BBA’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts was released, and we couldn’t be more excited about this significant step toward our goal to draw more attention to the critical legal services work that goes on in our state. Every day, the staffs of these legal services organizations work hard to offer support to as many as possible. Yet, in spite of their tremendous efforts, 64% of income-eligible people who seek civil legal aid in our Commonwealth must be turned away due to a lack of resources. Moreover, the research of three independent economic analysts revealed for the first time that for every dollar spent on civil legal aid, the Commonwealth saves anywhere from $2 to $5 – meaning that increasing the funding for civil legal aid serves to benefit society as well as the state budget.
We hope that you will read the report for yourself, as it is informative, compelling, and at times shocking. I found it particularly captivating: as the former President of Greater Boston Legal Services and former Chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, I understood the budgetary constraints that keep many in need from getting legal representation. But what was news to me was that we can actually save money through a greater state investment in civil legal aid.
I have witnessed firsthand the difficulties that legal services organizations and the constituents who seek their aid face, but I have also seen the powerful positive impact that timely legal counsel can have on people. So I was glad that our report included three such stories. I want to share another client story with you here – one that we were not able to include in the report itself, but one that shows how civil legal aid can change the personal outcome of an individual and serves as an example of how even single cases of providing civil legal aid can have a much larger effect.
A client I’ll call Natasha was living in a subsidized apartment with her sons when her landlord improperly increased the rent on the apartment by $1,000/month and then tried to evict them for failing to pay $13,000 in what he claimed was unpaid rent. Fearful of losing the apartment and finding herself and her sons homeless and helpless, Natasha turned to CLSACC (Community Legal Services and Counseling Center) for legal assistance. CLSACC’s Housing Attorney represented her in District Court and persuaded the judge to dismiss the eviction. As a result of CLSACC’s representation, Natasha and her sons are able to remain in their affordable home.
It’s a great ending to a very human story; but for every person who finds justice through civil legal aid, nearly two others must be turned away. There are yet more who are unaware that seeking legal services is even an option. The reality of stories like Natasha’s is that they paint a much larger picture: there are many people in dire need of legal assistance throughout our state, and while her story and many others are uplifting examples of success, they also highlight in stark relief what could have happened if the person hadn’t received legal aid.
Consequences and Cost Savings to the Commonwealth
The cost analyses of three independent financial consultants give some indication of the interplay between the social repercussions of inadequate civil legal aid and the cost to the Commonwealth. Let’s stay on the issue of housing, which Natasha faced above, and consider what could have happened to her and her family without the support of CLSACC. One analyst, the Analysis Group, studied the funding issues surrounding wrongful evictions and foreclosures, and concluded that “for many…the eviction or foreclosure process will result in either substantial worsening of living conditions or homelessness” – which would correspondingly increase the costs in emergency shelter resources, the public health system, policing, and possibly foster care.
Think of the extensive range of possible consequences that could accompany a family forced into homelessness. The consultants found that “children in homeless families are less likely to attain the same level of education as other children,” and could suffer from other health problems, both mental and physical. They would be more likely to resort to drugs or to violence, as also suggested in the report. This would then put even greater financial burdens on the Commonwealth.
Inadequate funding for civil legal aid also affects our justice system. We have previously discussed the strain placed on the courts by the increase in pro se litigants. Those who cannot afford legal representation or secure legal aid must enter the system on their own, and because of their unfamiliarity with the system, they often slow down operations and place unrealistic demands on the limited time and attention of courthouse staff. They frequently cannot present their cases properly, meaning that the final outcome may not see justice served as it should be – something that has been confirmed by a survey of state court judges conducted by the Task Force.
Ultimately, we must be aware of what happens without the support of legal services. The social and financial aspects are inextricably linked, and should be of utmost concern to anybody who lives in Massachusetts. The report by the Task Force comprehensively addresses why funding for civil legal aid is so important, what happens without it, and how we should go about increasing it; it is now up to us to follow through on their immensely important start and make sure that this message does not get lost.