Photo Credit: Jeff Thiebauth
Top: MBA President Christopher A. Kenney speaks to Walk to the Hill attendees.
Bottom: Bar presidents at the 20th Annual Walk to the Hill on Jan. 24.
The 20th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid saw hundreds of attorneys converge at the State House on Jan. 24 to ask their legislators to support a $5 million funding increase for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC).
Sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA), the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC) and the Boston Bar Association (BBA), the event served to underscore the ongoing need for greater state investment in civil legal aid. At present funding levels, legal aid programs can only accommodate 35 percent of income-eligible residents, approximately 45,000 of whom are turned away each year.
With so many deserving candidates for legal services unable to access justice in cases involving opioid addiction, domestic violence and homelessness, advocates are seeking to raise MLAC’s budget appropriation from $21 million in fiscal year 2019 to $26 million in 2020.
“This budget gap is not a mere inconvenience or a speed bump we can navigate around. It’s a human crisis,” MBA President Christopher A. Kenney told attendees.
To illustrate the severe lack of available civil legal aid, Kenney said current funding constraints would allow only those seated on the left side of the room to obtain the services of a lawyer. The remaining two-thirds of the audience, while equally qualified for assistance and facing similarly pressing legal problems, would have to navigate the court system on their own.
“That does not reflect our values as a commonwealth, or as a society,” Kenney said regarding the tens of thousands who are denied fundamental legal services. “We can and must do better, and that’s what today is all about.” Specifically, Kenney described Walk to the Hill as a quintessential grassroots effort and a unique opportunity for attorneys with limited involvement in state government to lobby their representatives to help broaden the pathway to civil justice.
Kenney also made a point to recognize the continued importance of pro bono work in ensuring successful legal outcomes for otherwise unrepresented clients. However, he emphasized that voluntary legal assistance “will never supplant the need for civil legal aid. It can, at best, supplement it.”
In a closing appeal to lawyers and members of the legislature, Kenney repeated a sentiment he first expressed earlier in his speech: “Civil legal aid is not a luxury. It’s a societal necessity, a moral imperative.”
Kenney’s comments followed an introductory address by EJC Chair Louis W. Tompros, whose call for legislative action centered on Massachusetts’ legacy as the birthplace of the democratic rule of law and access to justice for all. Tompros said the onus falls on attorneys to advocate for the interests of prospective aid recipients and to make certain that lawmakers understand the consequences of underfunding civil legal services.
“It is up to us to lead and to say that it is unacceptable when anyone facing a life-altering legal problem is denied access to justice just because of an inability to pay,” said Tompros.
In addition, Tompros used his remarks to acknowledge the recent retirement of longtime MLAC Executive Director Lonnie A. Powers, who had led the organization since its founding in 1983. Powers’ successor, Lynne M. Parker, marked her first Walk to the Hill by touting the effectiveness of civil legal aid programs, which, in FY18, provided an economic return of $60.5 million and benefited more than 95,000 clients and family members.
“The demand for civil legal aid remains very high” heading into FY20, Parker said, as low-income individuals continue to experience financial hardship driven by increased housing costs, job layoffs, medical emergencies and health insurance denials. “Access to civil legal aid can really make all the difference,” she said.
Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants concurred with other speakers about the human toll of the legal aid crisis, but also characterized MLAC’s funding request as a sound application of state resources. The $26 million budget figure equates to just $3.79 per person, Gants said, enough to purchase a Starbucks coffee or hot chocolate, but not a latte.
“You will later today be asking your legislators for less than one latte per year for each Massachusetts resident,” Gants said, expressing gratitude to the members of both State House chambers for their infusion of additional legal aid funding last fiscal year. “We are blessed to have legislators and legislative leaders who care deeply about the people who need civil legal services,” Gants said.
Along the same lines, BBA President Jonathan M. Albano shared a personal anecdote to note that elected officials respond well to constituents who are passionately invested in the legislative measures they hope to advance. Recalling what he learned the first time he met with one of his legislators, Albano said, “The one thing that moved them the most was having a constituent who cared enough about the issue to show up and say something.”
The event’s final speaker, Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) client Fred Connelly, offered an intimate look into the power of civil legal aid when he described the near loss of his hand-built home of more than 30 years. Connelly said his family fell on hard times after a serious injury forced him into early retirement, his wife was laid off from work and his son received a cancer diagnosis. Eventually given a 48-hour eviction notice, Connelly made the life-changing decision to contact GBLS and kept his home with the assistance of Senior Attorney Todd Kaplan.
If not for GBLS, “I know for a fact that I would not have my house back today,” said Connelly, who earned a standing ovation at the conclusion of his remarks.
Click here to view event photos.