Posts Tagged: legal

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.

Q&A with the Court Management Advisory Board: Glenn Mangurian Covers the Latest Report

The Legislature created the Court Management and Advisory Board (“CMAB”) in 2003 as an independent group of professionals who could bring management expertise, knowledge and experience to bear on the challenges facing the court system. The CMAB reports it findings to the Justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, leaders of the Legislature as well as the Chief Justice and the Court Administrator of the Massachusetts Trial Court.

BBA Week spoke with advisory board member Glenn Mangurian about the most recent report.

Q:       What are the main findings of the Advisory Board’s report?

Mangurian: Over the past 11 years, the Massachusetts Trial Court has been on a difficult but essential journey as it seeks to transform itself from an unevenly-performing, decentralized, often autonomous set of “islands of justice”, managed according to anecdote, intuition and habit, to a consistently high-performing system, managed according to modern best practice disciplines.

The Massachusetts Trial Court is on the move and headed in the right direction.  The Trial Court is addressing the consequences of the fiscal crisis of 2008-2012, and implementing and adapting to the structural changes made by the 2011 court reform legislation. Court management is “under the spotlight”. This focused attention to management “raises the bar” on execution excellence and follow-through at all levels.

The Trial Court must confront additional challenges such as the growing importance of specialty courts to address evolving judicial needs of the public and the scarcity of resources. Regardless of court funding levels, the public expects to be treated with respect and dignity in our courts, and to have its business handled in an expeditious and orderly manner.

The Trial Court “has a lot on its plate” for the next five years. The recent partial restoration and relative stability of the essential funding of the Trial Court is having a significant impact on court management and is important to further court management improvements.

Q:       What do you see as an important call to action as a result of these findings?

Mangurian: The 21st century Trial Court requires increased cross-disciplinary teamwork, active learning and innovation, and expansive talent and leadership development.  To assist the Trial Court in solidifying the progress made to date and preparing for the management challenges that lie ahead, the CMAB believes the Trial Court should focus leadership responsibility and overall accountability in three areas:

  • Knowledge management and decision analytics

The Trial Court should concentrate significant management attention on policy development, best practice sharing and training related to all aspects of evidence-based, data-driven decision-making.

  • Experience of court users

The Trial Court should work to improve the experience of court users having a wide range of perspectives, issues and concerns, and to measure the courts’ performance in this regard over time.

  • Talent development

The building of the Trial Court’s leadership capacity and human capital is of critical importance to the quality, strength, flexibility and resilience of our justice system. Because of an aging workforce and the prospects of increased retirements, there is a growing need to cultivate the next generation of court leaders to ensure continued judicial excellence into the future.

In addition the CMAB recommends the SJC establish a regular and recurring schedule of strategic and operational oversight meetings with the Chief Justice of the Trial Court and the Court Administrator.

Q:       How would you encourage BBA members to use this information?

Mangurian: The BBA has long been an advocate for the judicial funding. The Court Management Advisory Board thanks you for your support of the Trial Court.

We encourage all members to read the report. The report can be accessed here.

The document should serve as a catalyst for conversations among members and with employees of the Trial Court. The CMAB is planning an open discussion with the BBA on the report and work of the CMAB. Stay tuned for the specific date, time and location.

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!

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!

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.

Promoting Diversity in the Legal Profession

The Beacon Award for Diversity & Inclusion is right around the corner on October 14th, and we’re looking forward to what we know will be a spectacular event. Diversity has been a major priority of the BBA dating back to 1969, when President Haskell Cohn created a special committee to grant scholarships to minority students at the city’s six law schools. Since then, we have continued to add programs and initiatives to expand diversity and inclusion and develop a legal profession that more fully reflects the community it serves.

This year’s Beacon Award honoree is Governor Deval Patrick, a true champion of diversity. What you may not know is the extent of his successful efforts to increase the diversity of the Massachusetts judiciary by naming more women and minorities to the bench.

There are, in total, over 400 judicial seats in Massachusetts between the Supreme Judicial Court, the Court of Appeals, and the seven departments of the Trial Court. During the course of his time as Governor, Patrick made about 170 appointments to the bench – a full 40 percent of the state judiciary. Ultimately, nearly 50% of those 170 appointments have been women, while approximately 20% were members of minority groups.

One can readily see the impact of Governor Patrick’s appointments on the Supreme Judicial Court, which serves as a microcosm of the larger picture. When Governor Patrick took office in 2007, the Court had three female justices – including Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, the first woman to hold that position – and one person of color, then-Justice Roderick Ireland. Today, for the first time in history, the Court has a majority of female associate justices, and only the second time that there has been a majority of female justices in the court (in late 2000, Associate Justices Abrams, Cowin, and Sosman sat on the court while Chief Justice Margaret Marshall held that position). Through Governor Patrick’s appointments, Chief Justice Roderick Ireland became the first person of color to serve as Chief Justice; two persons of color are current Associate Justices; and the first openly gay Associate Justice sits on the bench.

These numbers reflect that Governor Patrick has been a trailblazer in this area. We are grateful for his efforts, and the people of the Commonwealth are served all the better for them.

Moving forward, we need to keep that spirit alive and apply it not just to the judiciary but also to the legal profession in general. While strides are being made in diversifying our state judges, the same is not true for the rest of Boston’s legal community. Our city is actually behind national averages in diversity statistics, particularly for minority groups: according to a story in the Boston Business Journal, only 3.8% of partners in Boston law firms were minorities, versus 7.1% nationwide.

I know we can do better, and believe that part of the solution is fostering inclusion and mentorship opportunities so that minority attorneys are encouraged to seek leadership positions in their professional roles and in the legal community. The BBA’s Diversity & Inclusion Section works hard to make this happen by partnering with six Massachusetts affinity bar associations on events and programs, holding its own programs about diversity and offering valuable advice from well-established attorneys, running the Group Mentoring Program every year, and encouraging minority law students to apply for the Judicial Internship Program.

But of course, progress is not made by just one organization, or even by a committed group of organizations. Change has to come at all levels and become a systemic effort. The percentage of minority associates in Boston has risen slightly from 14% in 2008 to 16% in 2014, and we hope that the legal community will come together to bolster that growth within their organizations and by supporting organizations that make diversity a part of their mission.

So as we celebrate Governor Patrick’s commitment to diversity, I urge you to reflect on the larger picture in Boston and consider ways that you can pledge your support to this issue. The numbers don’t lie: we have a long way to go and an uphill road to travel.  Despite the longstanding challenges inherent in diversifying the legal profession, I believe that our concerted efforts to educate ourselves and others about diversity, our participation in events that promote it, and our work to consciously develop and maintain inclusive professional environments will ultimately change the numbers for the better.

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 www.massprobono.org 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.

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.