News Releases
October 15, 2014

Study Reveals Majority of Those in Need of Civil Legal Aid In Mass. Are Turned Away as Funding Plummets

Press Release

BBA Task Force Calls for $30 Million Boost in Annual Appropriation from State, Says Cost Savings Will Far Outstrip Expenditures

Lack of funding makes legal aid in civil cases unattainable for most low-income people in Massachusetts who need it, according to a comprehensive, 18-month study by a Boston Bar Association-led task force.

The results of the study, “Investing in Justice: A Roadmap to Cost-Effective Funding of Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts,” show that an annual $30 million in new state funding is urgently required to help bridge the gap between existing resources and what is needed to provide appropriate civil legal aid to all who are eligible.

“The situation in Massachusetts is dire, with more than 60 percent of those who should have access to civil legal aid turned away,” said BBA President Julia Huston, partner at Foley Hoag. “This is a travesty for those affected, who are the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged in our society and yet cannot afford legal representation to seek justice in our civil courts. The results are devastating both for these individuals and for judges and all who work in or use the court system.”

The task force additionally found that this $30 million investment would ultimately save state taxpayers money. When legal aid helps a client, the state can save on back-end costs. For example, when an attorney helps a victim of domestic abuse — to move away from her abuser — the state saves money by spending less on medical expenses. And when a civil legal aid attorney prevents a wrongful eviction or foreclosure, the state avoids the costs of sheltering homeless families. At the same time, increasing civil legal aid funding will help secure more federal benefits for deserving Massachusetts residents, bringing money into the state’s economy.

Based on very conservative calculations, the report conclusively demonstrates that each dollar spent on civil legal aid in three critical areas would produce savings and other benefits to the state and its people. In domestic-violence cases, the investment would be fully matched by savings in state medical costs, in addition to protecting victims and helping to break a pattern of abuse. In housing matters, the return would be $2.69 for every $1 invested. And in the area of federal benefits, the economy would grow by $5 with each additional $1 put toward legal aid.

Civil cases often deal with the necessities of life, such as domestic safety and shelter, yet are treated differently than criminal cases where courts are required to appoint attorneys for those who cannot afford them. 

In June 2013, the Boston Bar Association created the Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, bringing together leaders from business, academia, and all three branches of government; attorneys from legal services, private practice, and in-house staffs; and three independent national economic consultants who provided their services for free to the task force. 

Led by former BBA President J.D. Smeallie, partner at Holland & Knight, the task force set out to investigate the state of civil legal aid in Massachusetts and determine how best to fix a system that is failing to meet the needs of its people. 

“The results are staggering. Our civil legal aid organizations are strained way beyond their resources,” said Smeallie. “Law firms in Massachusetts provide tens of thousands of hours in pro bono support, but the fact is the unmet need is overwhelming and can be resolved only by a concerted effort between the state and the private bar – one that requires additional funding. With help from the State Legislature, we can turn the tide on this problem and work hand in hand to expand on our mutual commitment to access to justice for all.”

As interest rates have declined over the past several years, funding for civil legal aid from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) has dwindled from $31.8 million in 2007 to $4.5 million in 2014, yet the number of eligible people in the state has grown about 25 percent to nearly a million. The plunge in IOLTA funding puts into stark relief the long-standing inadequacies of our system in funding civil legal aid. And while these numbers can fluctuate, there are no economic forecasts that suggest funding from IOLTA will rebound in a meaningful way for many years to come. The task force report highlights the inherent unreliability of IOLTA funding and makes the case that funding for legal aid should be a public responsibility.

The task force focused on three key areas of need in civil legal aid: evictions and foreclosures, domestic violence, and federal economic benefits. The study involved intense data gathering, as well as surveys of 13 major legal aid agencies and the courts. Additionally, the task force interviewed legal services clients, to learn about their experiences, as well as employers, to better understand how the current crisis affects their business needs.

The results are contained in a 37-page report that the BBA is distributing today to its members, state and city leaders, large employers and the media. Visit here to see the detailed report.