As we look forward to the Boston Bar Foundation’s (BBF) popular Passport to Pairings event (for a fun two minute diversion, our Voices of the Bar page asks, “What Is Your Favorite Dynamic Duo?”), it is worth considering legal aid from the same perspective. In many ways, both monetarily and in service, civil legal representation is a public-private partnership.
We talk all the time about the importance of legal services funding and the findings of our Investing in Justice report. The report gives the full picture of legal services funding, explaining how a drop in IOLTA, due largely to low interest rates, coincided with a growing number of residents struggling to get by, and the increased complexity of laws and the courts. All of this combines to place significant limits on access to justice for many individuals facing challenges relating to life necessities, such as shelter or personal safety. These problems persist despite the combined efforts of the public-private partnership. The report also proves that additional funding for legal aid results in a positive return on investment, saving the state on back-end costs such as emergency shelter and medical services, while also stimulating the economy by bringing more money into the state through federal benefits.
The Legislature, representing the public aspect of this partnership, has long supported civil legal aid. On Tuesday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee released its budget proposal. We were pleased to see increases over the House budget for CPCS ($3 million more) and the Trial Court (about $11 million more – enough to rule out the need for staff reductions) and a slight increase over last year’s funding level for legal services funding ($268,500). The Senate process continues with floor amendments. Senator William Brownsberger is sponsoring a $5 million amendment, seeking a total of $20 million, for the MLAC line item (0321-1600) from the Senate. We strongly urge you to contact your Senator today and ask him or her to vote for the Senator Brownsberger MLAC amendment. This may be our last chance to make the case for civil legal aid during this budget cycle.
From a funding perspective, both the Legislature and the bar support legal aid. To start with, attorney registration contains an “opt-out” contribution whereby attorneys donate $50 to support legal aid unless they opt-out. This alone raises about $1.1 million annually for MA IOLTA. Some attorney fees also provide modest additions, such as roughly $200,000 for pro hac vice admission of out-of-state attorneys to take cases in Massachusetts.
While the Legislature has generously funded civil legal aid for decades, attorneys also voluntarily contribute millions of dollars. They give this money to fundraising drives of agencies like Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and Community Legal Aid (CLA) as well as to foundations like the BBF and the Massachusetts Bar Foundation.
Unfortunately, these foundations historically granted money they received from IOLTA funds. They continue to do so, but as IOLTA has dropped, so has their funding capabilities. As a result, the total legal services grants awarded by the BBF have plummeted from just under $2 million in FY2007 to $825,500 in FY2014. To address this huge shortfall, the BBF increased the amount of its own funds directed to civil legal aid grants by over $100,000 in each of the last several years, to the point that it funded over 46% of its FY14 grants. Since 2009, the BBF has dedicated over $2.2 million of its own funds to legal services grants.
In addition, the private bar also donates millions of dollars’ worth of pro bono hours. Under the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct, lawyers are expected to donate at least 25 hours per year of their time to provide free legal services to those in need. Very few professions have any comparable standards, and Massachusetts lawyers embrace this role. We conservatively calculated that in 2013, lawyers in the state provided in excess of 82,000 pro bono hours through four legal aid providers alone, at a value of more than $17.6 million. This is likely only a fraction of the full amount of pro bono services provided in the state.
As you can see, both sides are doing their part: The Legislature generously increases MLAC funding each year, even during tough economic times, and the private bar donates its time and money. Yet there is still a long way to go. With 58,000 individuals turned away from legal services providers in the last year due to lack of resources, everyone needs to step up. We applaud the Legislature for the generous monetary support we know they will provide in FY16. We urge the bar to keep up the great work and to take on one more task – please ask your Senator to vote for Senator William Brownsberger’s $5 million budget amendment in the Senate. With this public-private partnership, we know civil legal aid can’t lose!
– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association