Posts Categorized: Civil Legal Aid

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?

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!

The State of the Judiciary and Its Connection to the Bar

Late last week, the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court Ralph Gants appeared before an audience of representatives from across the legal community to give his inaugural State of the Judiciary address. Along with Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence, Chief Justice Gants outlined his hopes for the courts, the legal profession, and the justice system in our Commonwealth.

I want to highlight a couple of the initiatives that Chief Justice Gants announced and explain what the bar has done – and can do in the future – to further them.  Many of these initiatives are just as important to the BBA’s mission, and our position as members of the bar, as they are to the courts.

For example, Chief Justice Gants took on the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing. For nearly 20 years, the BBA has opposed mandatory minimum sentencing, issuing a resolution to that effect in 1990, followed by a task force report called The Crisis in Corrections and Sentencing in Massachusetts a year later. The BBA also sponsored a bill that helped to create the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission. Over the years, we have publicly testified in support of sentencing reform and have studied related topics ranging from parole practices to CORI reform.

This is an issue that continues to be a BBA priority, and as Chief Justice Gants noted in his remarks, there is ever-increasing public support for our position. We know that strict sentencing disproportionately affects minority groups, and as Chief Justice Gants cited, mandatory minimum sentencing does not take into account the specific facts of each case – which can be especially problematic given the large proportion of drug-related cases in which addiction is a mitigating factor. The specialty court sessions of the Trial Court, including the drug court and veterans’ court, provide a greater focus on the role and the treatment of substance addiction and are expanding rapidly.  We need to continue to support the courts’ efforts in addressing these difficult and complex issues by continuing our advocacy for specialty courts.

We also want to thank Chief Justice Gants for his reference to our Task Force Report on civil legal aid, which we released the day before his speech. He urged the legislature to act on our recommendations for increased funding for civil legal aid, in line with the courts’ continuing focus on ensuring access to justice.

In his speech, Chief Justice Gants indicated that the judiciary’s initiatives could not be successful without the support of the executive and legislative branches and the bar.  The BBA has a long tradition of working with the judiciary on matters of mutual interest.  As one example of the bench and the bar working together on an access to justice project, this summer, we saw the first court service center in Boston open at the Brooke Courthouse. An initiative of the court, our most recent Public Interest Leadership class collaborated with the court staff to assist with some of the set-up, materials, and volunteer staffing associated with the initial phases of opening the center, which provides a workspace area and guidance to self-represented litigants who come to the court and don’t know where to start. Now, according to Chief Justice Gants, judges are wondering how they ever lived without the court service centers that exist in Boston and Greenfield, and there are plans to open new service centers in courts across the Commonwealth.

It is in this spirit that I encourage all attorneys to continue to advocate for the courts and their goals, as it gives us the opportunity to strengthen this partnership. Already, Chief Justice Gants has recommended numerous working groups that include members of the bar, showing that our input is of high value to the courts. We can also make sure to attend open court events, such as an upcoming open house at the Brooke Courthouse Court Service Center on October 30th, as well as bench-bar symposiums to hear our judges’ perspectives on matters of mutual importance and to provide feedback. Through collaboration and thoughtful discourse across all parts of the legal community, we can see these critical shared goals come to fruition.

Why We Must Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts

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.

Natasha

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.

Annual Meeting and the Power of the Bar

This past Friday, the BBA held its Annual Meeting Luncheon, the first major event of the program year and my first major event as President of the BBA. It was a truly spectacular experience to stand on that stage and look out at nearly 1,200 members of the legal community – attorneys, esteemed judges, government representatives, and many more – who had gathered in force to honor the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts and former BBA President Ed Barshak.

The opportunity to personally present these awards reminded me exactly why we were all there: to express our gratitude to those who have worked and are still working to substantively change the legal community, and Boston, for the better. We are lucky to have leaders with the vision and passion to start initiatives that produce meaningful, tangible results, from Ed Barshak’s Committee on School Desegregation to the imminent report of the Task Force, which I believe will change the debate on the value of legal services. They truly represent the power of the bar to make a difference, which struck me profoundly on Friday. That power resides not only in the incredible work of our honorees, but also in the support and mobilization of the legal community around a variety of issues that are critically important to our community.

AM_Task Force 1

BBA Past President J.D. Smeallie and his Task Force have made incredible strides over the last year in exploring the issue of civil legal aid, working across all branches of government and with pro bono independent economic experts. We are awaiting their findings, but we expect they will help us make the case that civil legal aid constitutes a benefit to society rather than a cost, as every dollar invested in such aid results in a savings of two to five dollars to the Commonwealth and its residents. As President of the BBA, J.D. Smeallie led the charge to work on this issue; the enthusiastic support and determined research of representatives from across the legal system and across Massachusetts have made the report a reality.

Likewise, Ed Barshak is a true leader who exhibits great wisdom, humility, and compassion. When the City of Boston faced a major challenge in the 1970s, he was not afraid to act, and his guidance brought the BBA more fully to the forefront of the Boston community as a reputable and respected voice of reason. As he organized a committee to study the legal case and resulting school desegregation plan in Boston, Ed knew what everyone who has held a leadership position at the BBA knows: that despite all of our members being busy professionals, volunteers will always step forward when the need arises.

Barshak

This is what makes us great, as an organization and as a community, and why it was doubly meaningful to see and meet with so many attendees at our sold-out Annual Meeting Luncheon. The event symbolizes the start of a new program year, and to have nearly 1,200 members of the legal community present to welcome each other, share ideas, offer standing ovations to our honorees, and generally show their support for the continued improvement of the profession, and our society as a whole, was inspiring.

When we talk about the power of the bar and our ability to effect substantive change in our community, we rightly think of leaders like Ed Barshak, J.D. Smeallie, and the members of his Task Force. But even the BBA itself – an organization that has prospered over the past 300 years due to the steady commitment of volunteers, who give their time simply because they believe in these causes and find fulfillment in working on them – showcases the true power of the bar: not just strength in numbers, but strength in our conviction, passion, and drive to support great work.

I would like to thank our honorees again for their work to improve our community, as well as New York Times reporter Adam Liptak for his heartfelt speech about his late friend and former colleague Tony Lewis and what “freedom of the press” truly means. I must also thank all who attended Annual Meeting – and all our members who find the time, year in and year out, to bolster the power of the bar for the benefit of all. If Friday was any indication of what is to come, we have a full and productive year ahead.

Crowd Shot

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.