Posts Tagged: access to justice

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!

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.

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.


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.

Pro Bono Month and the Work of the Private Bar

“Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.” – The American Bar Association


October is Pro Bono Month at the BBA and across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – a time for us to recognize and celebrate meaningful pro bono contributions to the legal community and learn more about how else we as attorneys can make a positive difference.

With the pending release of the report from the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, this month takes on a deeper meaning.  Let me share one figure from the Task Force’s report with you: the estimated market value of time donated by attorneys through pro bono work with just four Boston-area legal services providers in 2013 was $17.6 million, representing the value of over 82,000 hours contributed.

This is a staggering number, and all the people behind that number deserve our wholehearted respect and applause.  In Massachusetts, lawyers are expected by the Board of Bar Overseers to donate at least 25 hours per year of their time to pro bono legal services – and many attorneys go above and beyond this.  You may recall Law Day Dinner this past year, when Mayor Marty Walsh asked the crowd of 1,300 attorneys and other representatives from the legal community how many would be involved in a pro bono project in the coming year; almost everybody raised their hands.  As Mayor Walsh succinctly put it, “Boston’s legal community has an established tradition – and an active culture – of pro bono legal work.”

Many others show their commitment to the cause by answering the call to donate 1% of their incomes to legal aid and similar causes.  Those who pledge to the Boston Bar Foundation, for example, are supporting both legal services organizations and pro bono initiatives, since the Foundation provides grants to legal services and community organizations as well as funding for pro bono initiatives of the Association.

Even as we celebrate and laud the generous donations of time and resources made by members of the private bar, we must be aware that their contributions alone can never meet the entire need.  Pro bono work by the private bar provides crucial support to legal services organizations, and, judging by the numbers, attorneys are actively engaged in this area.  Yet, with the rising number of income-qualifying individuals that legal services organizations are forced to turn away every year, there is no way the private bar alone can entirely bridge the gap between those who need legal aid and those who receive it.

In short, there is still much more work to be done.  This is why we are looking forward to the full report of the Task Force to recommend steps not only to fund legal services organizations, but to create more opportunities for the private bar to help address the unmet need.  The Legislature has been instrumental in this effort thus far.  We appreciate their support of this cause and look forward to continuing to partner with them in the future as we work to secure legal assistance for all who need it.

If you want to get more involved in pro bono work, there are numerous ways to do so.  The website at is a great resource for finding pro bono opportunities across the state.  Many cases require special training, which is why the BBA partners with community legal services organizations every year to create a full slate of pro bono events and training sessions every October.  You can find that calendar here.

I would urge you to consider getting involved, or, if you are involved already, increasing that involvement and encouraging other attorneys to join you in taking pro bono cases and volunteering time and expertise.  There is still much work to be done.  I am confident that if we continue to give as generously as we have in the past, if we continue to show our commitment to advancing access to justice, and if we continue to work alongside our partners across the legal community and in the government to implement the Task Force’s forthcoming recommendations, we will make even greater strides in meeting the need for legal assistance in our state.

Supporting Our Judiciary

One of the most rewarding aspects of serving as BBA President is that I have the privilege to meet with the Chief Justices of our state and federal courts in Massachusetts to discuss matters of interest to the bench and the bar. It is a rare opportunity to talk on a one-on-one basis about how we may work together in the coming year, and one that I have been very much looking forward to. This week, I’ve had the honor of speaking with Chief Justice Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence of the Massachusetts Trial Court, Chief Justice Angela Ordoñez of the Probate & Family Court, and Chief Justice Steven Pierce of the Housing Court, with more meetings to come throughout the fall.

As you know, supporting increased funding for the judiciary has always been a major priority of the BBA, and it is one that I fully intend to advance in my year as President. We have talked about the cause a great deal, but we don’t always go into the background details about why we consider it so crucial. Our courts face many challenges that can hinder access to justice, and even affect the quality of justice. Here are just some of the issues the courts face on a daily basis and some of the changes they hope to implement in the future to enhance efficiency and improve the court experience for all users:

  • The caseloads of all of the courts are far higher than you might expect. The Probate & Family Court alone saw almost 160,000 cases filed in FY2013; altogether, the Trial Court saw just under 1 million filed. Even for cases that never make it to the courtroom, the accompanying paperwork, as well as the time spent handling them, stretches thin the limited resources of the courts.
  • Likewise, the numbers of pro se litigants that come through the courts place a burden on court staff members, as they have to devote precious extra time to giving guidance and providing materials to litigants who are unfamiliar with the court system and are not always prepared to properly present their cases.
  • Relieving this burden and ensuring access to justice for those who cannot afford representation, or who have entered the system struggling with difficulties like substance addiction, is a priority of the courts – and of the BBA. The Trial Court has implemented several initiatives to provide support for these individuals, including the Brooke Courthouse Court Service Center, a workshop for self-represented litigants to access court services and individualized attention from volunteer attorneys. In addition, specialty courts provide treatment plans attuned to the particular needs of those dealing with substance abuse and/or mental health problems, as well as to struggling veterans. These are a critical part of the expansion of the courts.  The latest budget for the Trial Court includes a line-item funding specialty courts, and this appropriation is a positive first step in the right direction.  After speaking with the Chief Justices, I am convinced that there is a need to expand these programs further.
  • Implementing advanced technological upgrades will be an essential part of streamlining the courts. In the long run, these improvements promise efficiency and ease of use, and we must be willing in invest in them today.
  • Apart from the internal systemic maintenance that the courts require, the physical courthouses themselves need work as well. Several are long overdue for repairs and basic accessibility features, such as handicap entrances and routes.

Advocating for increased funding for the judiciary is certainly about improving the infrastructure for the court staff and judges; but it also affects litigants who pass through the courthouse, often without having a clear idea of how to pursue justice, and the attorneys who practice within its walls. This isn’t just a responsibility we take on by rote – it is one of the BBA’s core tenets. We recognize that our judges and court personnel do incredibly difficult work every day to see justice served, and we remain steadfastly committed to working with the courts to help them continue to do so. The people of Massachusetts demand, and deserve, nothing less.

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

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

We’d also like to point anybody interested in this cause to  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.