Introducing the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts
by J.D. Smeallie
At a dinner last March, I sat next to the Editor in Chief of American Lawyer. I told him that I would soon be the president of the Boston Bar Association and that one of the perks was the opportunity to create an initiative for my year as president. I then ran by him some of the initiatives I was considering. When I got to the topic of civil legal aid, he stopped me and said there is nothing more important that a bar association can do than to fight for civil legal aid for those in need. His passion on this point resonated with me, and I knew then that the advancement of civil legal aid would be my cause during my upcoming term as president.
Shortly thereafter, the Chief Judge of the State of New York gave a speech at Harvard. He spoke of a task force that he had created to expand civil legal aid. The task force was comprised of a statewide group of lawyers, judges, business leaders, academics, union leaders and legal aid attorneys. What struck me most about their effort was how they demonstrated that increased state funding for civil legal aid actually saved the state money, while bringing in increased federal aid. The New York task force’s report was so persuasive in this regard that the state legislature there agreed to increase legal aid funding from $200 million to $300 million over a four year period.
For the past several months, I have visited with state legislators, bar leaders, legal aid attorneys, business leaders and other stakeholders to discuss the creation of a similar statewide initiative in Massachusetts. Without exception, those with whom I met acknowledged the problem. With federal funding of the Legal Services Corporation constantly shrinking, and IOLTA funding all but drying up, overall funding for civil legal aid has been on the decline in Massachusetts for years. At the same time, the need for representation in matters involving basic human needs like housing, prevention of domestic violence, and health care has been on the rise. In 2012, fully half of the people eligible for civil legal aid in Massachusetts had to be turned away because staffing at legal aid agencies had been slashed. As a result, poor people have to navigate our judicial system without the benefit of counsel. The situations in our Housing Courts and Probate and Family Courts are particular bleak. 95% of those who appear in the Housing Court are unrepresented. The percentage is not much better in the Probate and Family Courts. There, 80% of the litigants do not have a lawyer.
All of those with whom I have met agree that a statewide initiative to examine the unmet need for civil legal aid across the state and to determine the most cost effective way to meet that need is a good idea. We are lucky to have the benefit of the good work already undertaken by our Access to Justice Commission, and we do not intend to repeat their efforts to provide help to unrepresented litigants. We do expect to follow the lead of the New York task force and examine whether increased funding for civil legal aid can save the state money in the costs of homelessness, domestic violence prevention and various forms of aid which can be replaced by federal benefits, as was found to be the case there.
So, a BBA task force, named the Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, is now taking shape. Among those who have agreed to serve on the task force are the general counsels of five major Massachusetts based companies, a former president of one of our major universities, our Attorney General, the Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel, the managing partner of one of our largest law firms, and the current President of the Massachusetts Bar Association. We anticipate adding leaders from the legal aid community, state Representatives and Senators, and a union representative. We expect to complete our work and present a report in the spring of 2014.
Our system of justice is measured by how we treat those most in need, but we are not measuring up at the moment. If the experience in New York is indicative of what we may find and recommend here, the hope is that we can to reverse the trend and to begin to expand civil legal aid for our state’s poorest citizens, while saving the state money in the process.