The Boston Bar Association (BBA) applauds Governor Charlie Baker for approving the Legislature’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget appropriation of $18 million for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). This represents a $1 million increase over the prior year and, combined with the generous $2 million increase MLAC received in last year’s budget, a 20% increase in just the past two years.
Although the Commonwealth faces an extremely challenging fiscal climate, the Governor and the Legislature clearly understand that this is a crucial time to fund legal aid, because it directly touches so many of the biggest social problems facing the Commonwealth, including foreclosures and emergency shelter, the opioid crisis, and domestic violence. Indeed, in his budget signing letter, the Governor singled out MLAC for the help it provides, as a funder of civil legal aid programs throughout the Commonwealth, to indigent or otherwise disadvantaged residents in need of legal representation.
Yet overall funding remains inadequate to meet the overwhelming need for the services these programs provide. The recent BBA report, Investing in Justice, demonstrates that, due to lack of resources, the civil legal aid agencies funded by MLAC already turn away 64 percent of qualified clients in need of legal aid for basic life necessities, such as housing, protection from domestic abuse, and child support. But the report also shows that investment in legal aid actually pays for itself, and more, by saving the state money on “back-end” costs such as emergency shelter, foster care, and health care. It also provides access to justice for those in need and helps the courts avoid the myriad complications and delays associated with pro se litigants.
With the generous $2 million funding increase from last year’s budget, MLAC is already taking steps to increase staffing levels in order to handle more cases. This increase gave MLAC the capacity to add 12.8 full-time-equivalent (FTE) attorneys, 1.8 FTE paralegals, and 3.2 FTE administrative staff, who could handle 1,230 more cases to benefit 3,295 residents.
“We are grateful to both the Governor and the Legislature for their strong support of MLAC, especially at this difficult time,” said BBA President Lisa Arrowood. “They recognize, as do we, that funding for civil legal aid is not only the right thing to do but also a sound investment. We are especially grateful to House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, the Ways & Means Committee chairs — Senator Karen Spilka and Representative Brian Dempsey — as well as the amendment sponsors who secured additional funding, Senators Cynthia Stone Creem and Will Brownsberger and Representative Ruth Balser.”