Posts Categorized: Access to Justice

Speaking Up For Those Who Need a Voice

As I listened to her speak, I realized how easy it would be for someone to be wrongfully evicted and forced into poverty and homelessness.

Ginette sat down to film an interview this winter, sharing a personal story that would ultimately be shown to hundreds of strangers. Entering into a rent-to-own contract, she told us, was fulfilling a longtime goal of home ownership. It was her piece of the American dream.

What she didn’t realize was that her broker sold the mortgage on the house, but continued to accept her monthly payments. And the bank that now held her mortgage didn’t notify her of the change, as required by law.

Imagine her shock and bewilderment when, after paying her mortgage on time every month, she received an eviction notice from a bank she’d never heard from before. When she approached her broker with the letter, she found that he had been arrested for fraud.

Good, you might think, a happy ending. But that’s not actually true; Ginette’s civil legal encounter was just beginning. She showed up at court, where a judge delayed her hearing and referred her to Greater Boston Legal Services. Ultimately, GBLS attorneys were able to help Ginette keep her home.

“This group of men and women were here for me, so I have a roof over my head,” she said. “And that was the most important thing that anyone has ever, ever done for me.” (Watch her full story here.)

Last week, Governor Baker released his proposed budget, in which the Judiciary – including civil legal aid – was level-funded. Here’s why, even in this fiscal climate, that’s not good enough: civil legal aid to support people facing wrongful evictions actually saves money.

Every $1 invested in legal aid to fight wrongful evictions and foreclosures saves the state $2.69 in shelter, foster care and law enforcement costs. That’s what an independent economic analysis determined in our Investing in Justice Report. Whatever we invest, we get back – and then some.

It’s with that in mind that I urge you to use your voice. Let your legislators know that increasing civil legal aid is part of the solution towards fixing, not exacerbating, the budget gap.

I know that it takes courage to speak up; just as it took courage for Ginette to share her story on camera. I’ll speak up for her and others like her.

Will you?

A Win for Access to Justice: Supreme Judicial Court Adopts Ruling Urged by BBA

It’s always a great feeling when the BBA weighs in on an issue and the Court is in agreement, but it’s especially gratifying when the issue at hand will have an immediate and beneficial impact on improving access to justice.

In a decision with potentially far-reaching implications for disputes involving the guardianship of minor children, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled this week that indigent parents are entitled to a court-appointed attorney whenever their children may be taken from them.

This position was urged on the Court by an amicus brief to which the Boston Bar Association signed on.  As noted by Justice Francis X. Spina on behalf of a unanimous Court, “[T]here is every reason, given the fundamental rights that are at stake, why an indigent parent is entitled to the benefit of counsel when someone other than the parent … seeks to displace the parent and assume the primary rights and responsibilities for the child.”

The Court took the position, as the amicus brief argued, that this right to counsel — which already applied in adoption cases and when the state seeks to remove a child from a parental home — ought to be extended to privately-contested guardianship matters as well.  In the case before the Court, a mother was not represented by an attorney when her grandmother, who had her own attorney, won guardianship of her child.

The BBA agreed to join the brief in support of a right to counsel in large part because of its longstanding commitment to the principle of access to justice for all.  The amicus brief directly cites three BBA task force and working group reports, including most recently Investing in Justice, the report of the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.

The BBA’s Amicus Committee is chaired by Mark C. Fleming of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP.  The BBA’s policy for filing amicus briefs and procedures for submitting amicus brief requests are available here.

Why I Walk to the Hill

I was a special education teacher before I became an attorney.  My personal experiences in this field opened my eyes early on to the reality that there is a critical need for advocates in all areas of our community.  I was moved by a particular case involving a child with special needs who had been placed in a detention center where he was denied the special education services he needed.  He had no voice, no resources, and no hope.  My opportunity to advocate for this child, and improve his situation, led me on the path I so passionately walk today.  I hope you will walk with me.

There’s no other way to say it. We have an access to justice crisis in Massachusetts. As the BBA’s Task Force on Civil Legal Aid stated, nearly two-thirds of people who seek civil legal aid are turned away because the organizations that provide free legal services don’t have the resources to help. That’s astonishing.

Who are these people being turned away? They are people fighting to protect their home and family from wrongful evictions or foreclosures. They are people who need to escape domestic abuse. They are parents trying to get special education services for their child.

As a former special education teacher and former president of Greater Boston Legal Services, I know firsthand how inadequate legal aid funding hurts honest, hard-working people. That’s why on Thursday, January 29th, you’ll find me – along with many others – participating in Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. I plan to visit my state representative and senator, and tell them both that a turn-away rate of 64% has to change.

You might think, “But there’s a fiscal crisis, right? How can we call for a funding increase now?” Here’s something not many people may know: investing in civil legal aid pays for itself, as this week’s Issue Spot explains in detail.

Have you found a reason why you should Walk to the Hill? Meet up with other BBA Members at our 16 Beacon Street office before the event.

I hope to see you there!

Understanding the BBA/BBF Relationship

It’s that time of year again: as the old year wraps up, we’re looking ahead to the new. What’s on our plate for 2015? One of the first items is the John & Abigail Adams Benefit, the premier event of the Boston Bar Foundation, coming up on January 31.

If you have never attended the Adams Benefit before, 2015 is a great year to start. In addition to honoring John Hancock for their work to support Boston youth during a full evening of dining and musical acts throughout the entire Museum of Fine Arts, this year the BBF has added a new element called “Late Night at the Museum” – a post-dinner party with drinks, a DJ, and dancing.

Of course, the larger message of the Adams Benefit is about supporting our community. All of the proceeds from the event will go directly to grants for legal services organizations that do vital work in our city by assisting those who need civil legal aid in areas such as homelessness, domestic violence, and immigration, but who cannot afford full representation.

As you know, supporting legal services in Boston is also a priority of the Boston Bar Association. The BBF and the BBA are closely linked, and I’d like to take a moment to explain their relationship and how they work together on common initiatives. Simply put, the Boston Bar Foundation is the official charity of the Boston Bar Association. It was started with the goal of making substantive contributions in the areas of access to justice and public service. In both of these areas, the BBF is an integral part of the BBA’s efforts to develop and strengthen opportunities to get involved and give back.

How Does the BBF Do This?

  • Access to Justice: Part of the BBA’s mission is to expand access to justice, and with the release of Investing in Justice, the report of the Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid, the BBA has been very active in this area recently. With targeted initiatives like this, yearly events like Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid, and engagement with legal services attorneys through its Delivery of Legal Services Section, the BBA advocates for increased access to justice year-round. But that’s just one piece; the other is the work that legal services attorneys and organizations do on the ground every single day. This is where the BBF comes in – by providing immediate, direct support to organizations through charitable grants.
  • Public Service: Many of our members are familiar with the ongoing public service programs of the BBA – including the Summer Jobs Program, Lawyer for the Day in Boston’s Housing Court, and the Military and Veterans Legal Help Line – and generously give their time to these causes, which is critical to their success. The BBF funds the BBA’s public service programs through fundraising campaigns and events, the proceeds of which are dedicated to increasing the resources and reach of the programs. It also helps to place Summer Jobs Program students in positions at nonprofits and government agencies throughout the city.

I hope this understanding of the BBF’s work has served to pique your interest. If you’re interested in getting involved, there are many ways to do so. One way is to donate to the BBF’s Annual Campaign; another is to consider becoming a member of the Society of Fellows by pledging your support annually. As a Senior Fellow myself, I can attest to the great sense of community this group of lawyers embraces – and the delightful seasonal receptions!

Attending the Adams Benefit is yet another way to support the BBF and the community, and I assure that you will have a spectacular Saturday evening. I hope to see you there!

An Update from the Trial Court

Last week was a busy one at the BBA. Not only did I spend Tuesday as Principal for the Day, but later that evening, the BBA Council had the chance to hear directly from Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence – the dynamic duo who lead the Trial Court department. We know that they have extremely busy schedules, so we appreciate the time they took to discuss the status of the courts and give us a sneak peek at what might be in store for the future.

One Mission: Justice with Dignity and Speed,” the court’s strategic plan, has been in place for over a year under Chief Justice Carey and Court Administrator Spence, and through its emphasis on collaboration both internally and with other outside agencies, it has moved the courts forward in leaps and bounds. While change is still ongoing, there are a few significant updates from the discussion that I’d like to share as we continue our own advocacy for the courts:

  • Specialty Courts: The number of specialty courts has been rapidly expanding and is sure to continue to do so; in fact, a portion of the Trial Court’s funding for the year was specially earmarked by the Legislature, indicating lawmakers’ support for the specialty courts. Chief Justice Carey was emphatic about the great work and successes these programs achieve, challenging all of us to attend a specialty court graduation and not cry. One year into a three-year plan, eight new specialty courts have already been added, and, by the end of the year, we are slated to see a total of thirty-five. In addition to expansion, the Trial Court is working to standardize specialty court operation and study outcomes so that we can better measure their effectiveness. This can help us find ways to maximize the effectiveness of the specialty courts in response to specific challenges, such as the opiate crisis, and ultimately reduce rates of recidivism.
  • Technology: This is another area in which we can expect continual change from the courts as they update their systems and move toward becoming more streamlined, efficient, and user-friendly. They are moving to an all-digital system and are aiming to become 90% digitized within the next few years. Already, we can expect to see new features being set into place. For example, in Bristol and Barnstable Counties, attorneys can already find dockets and documents online. In January, they will implement e-filing for civil cases in certain demonstration sites and will soon begin to offer digital preservation of documents. The courts will also completely install MassCourts, the electronic case access tool, for the Superior Court by June. The Trial Court is committed to making its operations more user-friendly and accessible to the general public.
  • Security Screening: Under the guidance of their Director of Security Jeff Morrow – formerly of NCIS – the court has identified security issues in the courthouses and is working to address them. It may mean stricter security measures for all, but this will likely be a worthwhile trade-off for the added peace of mind. I found this particularly striking as the courts are hoping to maintain a dialogue with the bar to figure out the most effective way to ensure the safety of all who enter any courthouse.

We also heard more about the court service center that recently opened at the Brooke Courthouse, which has assisted over 3,000 litigants since June. New court service centers are in the works for all major courthouses across the Commonwealth. We are proud that our most recent Public Interest Leadership class had the opportunity to work with the courts to develop materials for the center and help it to launch – it’s a great example of how the bench and bar can collaborate on issues of mutual interest. It is a privilege to work with powerhouses like Chief Justice Carey and Court Administrator Spence, and we’re looking forward to lending our support as the year progresses. This stated mission of “justice with dignity and speed” is one that we share wholeheartedly.

Meeting Community Needs Through the BBA Lawyer Referral Service

The BBA works hard to make sure that it offers relevant, high-quality resources to those who need them – not just to its members, but also to people in the community who are seeking legal assistance. As we know from the recent report of the BBA’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, there is an enormous unmet need for legal aid in this state. The BBA recognizes that the increasing number of pro se litigants imposes significant burdens on our courts, and affects the ability of our judges to deliver justice. The BBA is committed to ensuring access to justice for everyone who comes before our courts, and including by assisting unrepresented litigants find lawyers.

With this in mind, I recently paid a visit to the BBA’s Lawyer Referral Service (LRS). The LRS is the BBA’s largest public service to members of the community, and is entirely staffed and supervised by the BBA. In a nutshell, the LRS operates a help line to match prospective clients with participating attorneys. Individuals seeking legal assistance can contact the LRS by telephone or through an online form to receive a referral to an appropriate attorney, legal services organization, or government agency.

Almost 300 attorneys are currently registered with the LRS, covering nearly 350 areas of the law. In order to ensure that its referrals are of a high quality, the BBA requires that participating attorneys meet certain requirements, including, in some subject matters that are more complex, a minimum number of years of experience. Attorneys may charge their usual rates and remit a portion to the BBA. Attorneys also have the option to make themselves available for reduced-fee cases, by which moderate to low-income clients are charged a maximum of $85/hour. These reduced fee referrals are a huge help in allowing individuals who may not be able to receive civil legal aid but cannot pay market rates for attorneys’ fees.

For even more perspective, let me highlight a few key facts about the LRS.

Quick Stats about the LRS:

  • The LRS received over 8,000 inquiries from prospective clients seeking representation in the past year.
  • Of those, 1,205 contacts came from online referral requests – more than 20% higher than the prior year.
  • Over the past year, 39% of LRS callers have been eligible for the reduced-fee panel, which has allowed the LRS to connect those unable to pay traditional fees for legal assistance to an affordable solution.
  • 60% of the attorneys who participate in the LRS also participate in the reduced-fee panel.

The Bigger Picture: Responding to Community Needs

As you can see, the LRS does incredible work on a daily basis. The service is personal and tailored to each client’s legal needs, and involves much more than just pulling names from a list. It truly has the capacity to change people’s lives every day.

But the LRS also has the ability to respond to the shifting needs of an evolving community, even in emergency situations. This flexibility allows it to be an even greater service to the community. For example, the LRS’s close connections to the legal community and its solid infrastructure allowed the BBA to establish the Marathon Assistance Project shortly after the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Through this project, more than 80 individuals and small businesses have received much-needed legal assistance in the aftermath of this tragedy. The LRS continues to offer assistance to these victims as their legal needs evolve.

More recently, the Military Legal Help Line was transferred over to the LRS. They have been able to expand the line and draw from a full panel of attorneys dedicated to assisting military personnel, veterans, and family members with their unique legal needs. As a result, the LRS has been able to connect 161% more members of this population with legal assistance than in the prior year. In even more exciting news, you may have seen earlier this week that four law firms have signed on to accept pro bono referrals through the Military Legal Help Line for clients who do not qualify for traditional free legal services, but cannot afford the fees of a lawyer. These partnerships will significantly improve our ability to assist this portion of the population.

With this kind of proactive approach, the potential of the LRS is unlimited. We are looking forward to exploring new ways that this valuable service to the community can grow and develop even more as the community itself continues to change.

A Look at Limited Assistance Representation

As I’ve already mentioned in this blog, one of the most exciting parts about beginning my term as BBA President has been the opportunity to meet with leaders of the courts and discuss current topics of concern for the bench and the bar. The chief judges and justices have all expressed the desire to continue to work closely with the BBA on matters of mutual interest.

It’s no surprise that one of those matters is access to justice, a major area of focus for both the courts and the BBA. We of course plan to maintain the momentum from the release of “Investing in Justice,” our task force report on civil legal aid, but there are many other steps to take in the meantime. One subject that has come up repeatedly in my meetings with court leaders is Limited Assistance Representation, its place in the courts, and its potential expansion.

Limited Assistance Representation (or LAR) is currently available to litigants in the Massachusetts Probate & Family Court, Land Court, Housing Court, District Court, and Boston Municipal Court.  Although many people are unaware of its existence, LAR has the potential to offer great benefits to litigants who would otherwise be handling their legal matters pro se. When using LAR, an attorney and client decide, before any legal work has been started, what portion of the case each will be responsible for and what sort of fee arrangement might be appropriate. This way, instead of navigating the legal system entirely on their own, self-represented litigants have some support in the more complex aspects of their individual cases. In some situations, litigants can seek LAR for reduced fee, or even occasionally on a pro bono basis.

LAR allows lawyers at all stages of their careers to get involved in cases that truly need the guidance of someone familiar with the legal system, but without committing to the full case, which could take up a great deal of time and require services beyond what the client can afford. It’s a way for experienced attorneys to support the cause of access to justice, and also gives newer attorneys who are not yet established a chance to gain some practical legal experience. After a specialized training session on how to approach these cases and work with clients on just a single or limited portion of the case, attorneys can manage different portions of multiple cases and charge for the assistance they provide, which is beneficial to the participating attorneys and also makes more affordable legal services available to litigants.

In this way, we see LAR as one of the potential methods to bridge the gap between attorneys seeking work and individuals who need legal services. Let me put this in perspective: in 2012, a briefing paper by the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission found that approximately 75% of litigants with a case in the Housing Court were self-represented; broken down further, almost 95% of those defending a case in that court were self-represented. Those numbers have not decreased over the past couple of years, and that is troubling. The glut of pro se litigants in this court and others needs to be alleviated in order for the courts to operate more efficiently in the service of justice.

The BBA is constantly exploring ways to improve access to justice in our state. To that end, the BBA is pleased to offer LAR training and serve as a resource for attorneys seeking LAR certification. In the comings months, the BBA will continue to consider the role that LAR and other methods of improving access to justice can play in better meeting the needs of our courts and the litigants who appear before them. This is an ongoing effort, and one which I hope we can continue to count on the legal community to support.