Posts Tagged: legal services

A Look Back at the BBA’s Accomplishments of 2014

The end of another year provides us with an opportunity to pause and reflect on where we were at the start of the year and how far we’ve come. Anticipation of a new year always marries nostalgia for the past and optimism for the future.

For me, it has been a very rewarding journey. In September of 2014, I assumed the presidency of the BBA, kicking off the program year at the very successful Annual Meeting Luncheon where we welcomed Adam Liptak of the New York Times. In the few months since, I feel that we as an organization have accomplished a great deal. One of our largest projects was the release of Investing in Justice, the report of the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts. Not only were we able to share its results with our members and the legal community, but we also worked hard to spread the message in the media that there are demonstrable fiscal, economic, and social benefits to providing greater funding for civil legal aid. This has been a huge step towards changing the discussion on this issue as people begin to view legal aid not just as a charity but as an investment.

We’ve also reached out to work with the different branches of government in a number of ways. While meeting with the chief judges and justices of the courts, we learned more about their priorities and how the bench and bar can work in tandem on common goals and initiatives. We have also started conversations with members of the legislature about projects of mutual interest. For example, the BBA recently approved a proposal to expand the Housing Court statewide and is working with the courts and Legislature to make this proposition a reality. Finally, we honored Governor Deval Patrick with the Beacon Award for Diversity & Inclusion for his work in shaping a more diverse judiciary in Massachusetts.

Let’s not forget that earlier in the year, the BBA took a stand against the death penalty in federal cases, issued a report concerning the Annie Dookhan drug lab scandal via the Drug Lab Crisis Task Force, and secured a record number of 64 summer jobs for Boston public high school students through the Summer Jobs Program – among many other successes.

We are proud of these landmark moments from the past year; and we are just as proud of the smaller, daily accomplishments across the legal community that have produced substantive change in the quality of life for our fellow residents of the Commonwealth. All of us are lucky to be part of a community of truly committed and passionate attorneys in our state, and we all benefit in particular from those who dedicate their professional lives to public service.

I could tell you more about this critically valuable public service work, which is very near and dear to me as the former President of Greater Boston Legal Services. But it’s much more meaningful to hear about it straight from those who are in the trenches. We reached out to two of our closest partner organizations – the Volunteer Lawyers Project, an initiative of the BBA, and Greater Boston Legal Services itself – and asked them, “What has been your greatest accomplishment of 2014?” Their answers are uplifting reminders of how the law can serve the people, and we wish them only the best as they pursue their missions into the new year. Here’s what they had to say:

“People from communities of color are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, and their criminal records have devastating economic consequences. I am proud that the GBLS CORI & Re-entry Project helped so many clients seal their records and break the cycle of poverty, unemployment, and/or homelessness. We also had a landmark victory in 2014 in the Commonwealth v. Pon case where the SJC threw out an outdated draconian standard for criminal record sealing by judges, replaced it with a good cause standard, and, in a thoughtful opinion, gave judges modern world guidance on the factors to be weighed in deciding whether to seal records. GBLS is struggling with budget problems and lack of staff to meet client needs. We are grateful to the BBA for hosting CORI trainings and helping us recruit attorney and law student volunteers to help the CORI project stay afloat and continue its important work.” – Pauline Quirion, GBLS

“As always, VLP’s clients have reaped much benefit from our partnership with the Boston Bar Association. The list of projects and initiatives would fill several posts, but this year, we are most proud of the new initiative that will provide an attorney for the day for homeowners facing tax foreclosure in the Land Court. VLP worked closely with the Land Court judges and staff, the BBA Real Estate Section, and the BBA staff to assess the need and the services that would be most helpful to the potential clients. When it became clear that the majority of litigants needing assistance would not be financially eligible for VLP services, the BBA Real Estate Section – along with the BBA staff – stepped in to take over, and have now trained a cadre of volunteers who will assist folks on the verge of losing their homes due to unpaid taxes on a Limited Assistance Representation (LAR)/Attorney for the Day basis.” – Volunteer Lawyers Project

We are looking forward to a productive 2015; here’s to our success in helping to support and improve our community, and have a safe, happy New Year!

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!

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.

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.