State must close gap in civil justice, and $7 million more is a start
The legitimacy of our courts is sustained only when all litigants – not just those who can afford to pay – have access to meaningful legal representation. Yet we can no longer deny that there is a significant gap in civil justice in Massachusetts. It most seriously affects low-income residents who lack the means to hire attorneys to represent them in cases related to life’s most basic necessities – shelter, employment and safety – among others.
Nine out of 10 judges surveyed by the Boston Bar Association Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts (which released a report last fall detailing its findings) said litigants without legal counsel slow down everyday court procedures. More alarming, though, is that six out of 10 judges reported that lack of representation “negatively impacts the court’s ability to ensure equal justice to unrepresented litigants.”
It is clear that despite the best efforts of court personnel and judges to assist people who are navigating the justice system alone, there is simply no substitute for experienced counsel when dealing with complex civil matters related to housing, employment, classroom accommodations for children with disabilities and conflicts related to child support and custody, divorce and domestic violence.
The state’s network of community-based civil legal aid providers, including Greater Boston Legal Services and its office in Cambridge, ensures that some of the state’s low-income residents in need of assistance with civil matters get the help they need. Last year, legal services providers receiving state funding handled 34,945 cases for clients throughout the state and closed a total of 24,225 cases. In many of these cases, civil legal aid providers were successful in averting and overturning evictions; helping disabled veterans get the Social Security Insurance payments due them; obtaining legal protection for survivors of domestic violence; and winning compensation for consumers who fell victim to predatory lending and fraud. In addition, these legal services programs recruited, trained and provided support for 722 private attorneys to donate 46,577 hours of legal service to low-income clients. These services can literally save the lives of individuals and families struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis.
Despite these efforts, great need remains. The BBA Task Force found that 64 percent of eligible clients who came to civil legal aid providers seeking assistance were turned away due to lack of resources. This stark reality does not include the more than 51 percent of eligible individuals who call seeking help but abandon their phone calls after spending between half an hour and two hours on hold waiting for a response. Nor does it include the large number of low-income people who have serious legal problems but who do not know that civil legal aid is available or do not realize their critical problems may have legal solutions.
This year, we are asking for the state to invest $22 million in civil legal aid, an increase of $7 million over last year’s budget. This amount will not close the justice gap, but it’s a start.
It’s also a fiscally prudent move.
The BBA Task Force found that each dollar invested in civil legal aid yields between $2 and $5 in returns for the state and its residents. For example, each dollar directed toward housing cases saves $2.69 that the state would otherwise have to spend on emergency services such as homeless shelters; each dollar directed toward domestic violence cases saves the state $1 in medical costs it would otherwise bear, as well as an unknown amount in shelter, police and other costs; and each dollar invested in federal benefit cases returns $5 in immediate, direct benefits to clients and their families.
The failure to begin to adequately invest in civil legal aid is a failure to ensure fairness for the most vulnerable Massachusetts residents, and is causing increased state costs associated with homelessness; long-term physical, mental and emotional trauma; interrupted schooling and more families trapped in a cycle of poverty with no opportunities to break out of it.
In the long run, benefits to the state include a healthier, more productive workforce; better-educated children with bright futures ahead of them; and the economic stimulus created when working families are able to reinvest their hard-earned dollars back into their own communities.
It could not be clearer: Massachusetts cannot afford not to invest in civil legal aid.
Lonnie Powers is the executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp., which disburses state funding for civil legal aid to 14 organizations throughout Massachusetts.