Attorneys ‘Walk to the Hill’ for increased civil legal aid funding

Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016
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Hundreds of attorneys participated in the 17th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid at the State House on Thursday, including MBA President Robert W. Harnais (second from top), who called on legislators to visit courthouses within their districts. Photos by Jeff Thiebauth.

Hundreds of attorneys participated in the 17th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid at the State House on Thursday. The Massachusetts Bar Association, the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC) and the Boston Bar Association asked participants to urge their legislators to support increased state funding for civil legal aid.

The EJC is calling on state lawmakers to adequately fund the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) line item in the state budget. MLAC is requesting $27 million in the FY17 budget, a $10 million increase in current state funding. Civil legal aid programs in the state are forced to turn away more than 60 percent of the 980,000 eligible people who seek services.

Massachusetts Bar Association President Robert W. Harnais encouraged participants to not only ask legislators for increased funding, but to also challenge them to visit and observe courthouses within their districts.

"The key is to get our elected officials out there. …That's what I urge you to tell the legislators: Don't do it from your desk. Do it from the courthouse," said Harnais. "Legal aid is a critical need. We're talking about people's lives. A family's home. A child's safety. We're talking about access to justice," added Harnais.

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants also challenged legislators who may question the size of the proposed $10 million increase.

"In a few minutes you will meet with legislators and members of their staff to ask them to increase the state appropriation for civil legal services from $17 million to $27 million," said Gants. "Many will ask you: 'How can we afford an increase of that size during a challenging budget season?' And you will answer: 'How can we afford not to?'"

Other featured speakers included Attorney General Maura Healey and BBA President Lisa Arrowood. The speaking portion of the event concluded with remarks from a legal aid client and a video showing a typical day in a Massachusetts housing court.

Walk to the Hill was co-sponsored by the Equal Justice Coalition, MBA, BBA and many local and specialty bar associations. Attorneys from 46 law firms and organizations participated. In addition, the event featured teams from several area law schools.