The annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid will take place on Thursday, January 29, exactly one week from the date of this post. It is the biggest lobbying event for the Boston legal community and one of the largest of its kind in the country. Over 500 lawyers will pack the State House’s Great Hall at 11:30 am to hear remarks from the likes of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, Attorney General Maura Healey, and BBA President Julia Huston. By noon, the speeches will end and the most important part of the day begins – legislative office visits.
We cannot stress this enough: go see your legislators! If you can’t be there in person, give their offices a call.
Don’t know who represents you? Find them here. Need a more information? Here is a fact sheet. Talking points to begin the conversation? We’ve got you covered. We know it can seem daunting, but all it takes is a brief visit with a legislator or staffer – let them know you care about legal aid funding, explain why it’s important, and ask whether they will support it. It’s that simple.
The BBA has long supported legal aid funding, but this year is unlike any other. On the heels of our report, Investing in Justice, which followed 18 months of intensive study, we are now better prepared than ever to support our unprecedented ask for an extra $10 million in legal aid funding each of the next three years. If granted, legal aid funding would rise to $25 million in this year’s budget, $35 million next year, and $45 million the year after. While this still isn’t enough to solve the shortage in legal services, it will make a significant dent in the rate of turn-aways. Currently, 64% of eligible individuals, meaning they subsist on less than 125% of the federal poverty level (under $30,000 for a family of four), with valid legal claims, many of them concerning basic life necessities such as shelter or protection from a batterer, cannot receive legal services due to lack of resources.
Investing in Justice goes beyond turn-away statistics; it includes testimony from legal aid clients about how legal services changed their lives, a survey of judges on how unrepresented litigants hinder courts in administering justice and operating efficiently, and quotes from business leaders explaining why they support civil legal aid funding. Moreover, it includes three extensive studies conducted by independent economic analysts on the return on investment civil legal aid provides. By their calculations, the state can benefit in the amount of $2 to $5 for every dollar invested in civil legal aid through savings on police, shelter, and emergency care costs, as well as economic growth.
We have written before that the news only reinforces the need for increased civil legal aid funding, and not just from the myriad of stories specifically based on our report. For example, recently, the Boston Globe ran yet another story on the plight of individuals in need of shelter. As the article explains, tightened eligibility requirements for homeless shelters force more families into life threatening situations, such as one mother and son who spend nights squatting in emergency rooms and T-stations, and a pregnant woman who spends the night huddled on a Quincy beach. To quote the Globe: “Housing lawyers say they are overwhelmed with families who have been denied shelter since the regulations went into place a few years ago. Hospital emergency rooms report an increase in the number of people showing up with nowhere else to go.” Two sentences couldn’t express the issue more clearly. Increased civil legal aid funding would provide the resources to help families sort through the complex shelter regulations, putting them into shelters and removing them from emergency rooms, T-stations, and unsafe public spaces.
With the state facing a dire economic picture – a $765 million budget shortfall, as reported by Governor Baker’s office – it is going to take more convincing than ever to increase civil legal aid funding. Yet, we have the perfect argument: increased civil legal aid funding will SAVE the state money. That’s right, by investing in the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) line item (0321-1600), Massachusetts will not only help the nearly one million people who qualify for civil legal aid to secure or maintain basic life necessities. It will also save the state money. The math is clear, every $1 spent on legal aid to prevent housing and homelessness saves the state $2.69, every $1 spent on legal aid to prevent domestic violence saves $2, $1 each for the state and federal governments. When legal aid attorneys help their clients secure their rightful federal benefits, such as from Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSI/SSDI) payments, the state’s economy grows by $5 for every dollar invested.
Think of it as preventative medicine – just as an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, investing in civil legal aid saves the state on police, medical, shelter and other costs. A family that wins a case against a dishonest landlord with the aid of an attorney gets to stay in their house rather than having to resort to a shelter and possibly foster care. A domestic violence victim who gains protection from a batterer with the help of a legal aid attorney can break the cycle of abuse and avoid the repeated exorbitant costs of emergency medical care. The numbers don’t lie.
In closing, we urge you to check out Investing in Justice, read the survey results, the testimony from legal aid clients, and the economic reports for yourself. If you don’t have the time now, read the talking points. Spread the word to your colleagues and come to Walk to the Hill to bring the message to your elected officials. Tell them what you learned and make sure they understand that civil legal aid funding is important – to you, to the underprivileged who need legal aid to secure basic life necessities, to a court system overburdened by pro-se litigants, and to the state looking to emerge from a major budget deficit. We look forward to seeing you at the State House on January 29th!
– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association