Hundreds 'Walk to the Hill' in support of civil legal aid

Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020
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Members of the legal community participated in the 21st Annual Walk to the Hill on Jan. 30.

Despite a welcome increase in annual state support for civil legal aid, service providers are still forced to turn away more than half of all potential clients who qualify for assistance. That was the overarching message from members of the legal community to their elected representatives during the 21st Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid, which took place at the State House on Jan. 30. 

Walk to the Hill is sponsored by the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC), a collaboration of the Boston Bar Association (BBA), the Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA) and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). Co-sponsored by numerous county and specialty bar associations throughout Massachusetts, the event brought together hundreds of attorneys to advocate for an additional $5 million in funding for MLAC. The requested increase would bring MLAC’s total appropriation in fiscal year 2021 to $29 million, broadening access to civil legal services for low-income individuals faced with issues involving housing, domestic violence, immigration and health care.

As EJC Chair Louis W. Tompros noted in his opening remarks, Walk to the Hill participants have helped secure $3 million funding increases in each of the last two years, raising the MLAC line item from $18 million to $24 million. Thanks to greater state investment in civil legal aid, the number of deserving litigants turned away by MLAC-sponsored organizations fell from two-thirds to around 57 percent in FY20, with an additional 5,000 people receiving services. 

“Think about what you’ve been able to accomplish over the last just two years,” Tompros said. “Your advocacy has radically changed the lives of 5,000 people who would not otherwise have had a lawyer.” 

Following his reference to the 88,000 recipients of civil legal assistance last year, Tompros stressed that just as many qualified individuals remain unserved due to a lack of resources. “It is for those 88,000 people that we are here not just to celebrate; we are here to advocate,” he said.

MBA President John J. Morrissey joined Tompros in recognizing the critical importance of recent increases in civil legal aid funding, while also calling attention to the role of volunteer and pro bono attorneys in improving access to justice. Morrissey said the MBA will continue to supplement the work of legal aid organizations through its Dial-A-Lawyer, Elder Law Education, Student Loan Bankruptcy Assistance, and Trial Academy programs, the latter of which requires graduates to provide free representation to pro se litigants.

At the same time, Morrissey emphasized that pro bono efforts alone cannot supplant the need for legislative action to address the underfunding of civil legal services in the state budget. 

“Adding $5 million more to MLAC’s budget would help close the gap by providing lawyers and legal services to allow our most vulnerable neighbors to access services for life’s most basic necessities, including housing and health care,” Morrissey said. 

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants acknowledged the Legislature’s consistent support of MLAC, which has used the additional funds to expand legal services to students facing expulsion, prisoners re-entering society and asylum seekers released from ICE detention. He said that an increase of $5 million in the FY21 MLAC budget would not only allow affiliated organizations to accommodate more clients, but also help to address the specific and pressing civil legal needs of tenants, veterans, seniors and noncitizens. 

Gants also noted that a $29 million appropriation amounts to only $4.20 per citizen, or less than the cost of one Dunkin’ Donuts Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich to extend the reach of civil legal aid for disadvantaged individuals. 

“When you speak this afternoon to legislators and staff, you speak not only for yourselves, but for all those who have neither money nor power, but who might have the law on their side, if only they knew how to use it. Feel their hand on your shoulder. Speak their truth,” Gants said.

MLAC Executive Director Lynne M. Parker, whose speech preceded remarks by the chief justice, made a point of thanking the lawyers, paralegals and staff members at civil legal aid organizations across the state for their work in providing direct assistance to clients each day. In addition to highlighting the human impact of civil legal services, Parker cited last year’s economic return of $69 million as evidence that funding such programs is a worthwhile investment for the commonwealth.

While economic conditions have improved in Massachusetts and around the country, Parker said, the demand for civil legal aid remains high, especially among the homeless, immigrant and veteran populations. 

“Legal aid is so vital to the health of our communities, the health of the judicial system, and the state’s commitment to access to justice,” Parker said.

Additional speakers included BBA President Christine M. Netski, who shared the story of a young immigrant mother saved from deportation by MetroWest Legal Services while she recovered from sexual abuse; and Kenda Cluff, a client of South Coastal Counties Legal Services.

Cluff gave an emotional account of how she struggled to support herself and her four children as a single mother attempting to end an abusive marriage. After she faced the prospect of living in a homeless shelter, Cluff ultimately obtained both a divorce and legal protection from her ex-husband, as well as sole custody of her children. Using the divorce settlement she received at the conclusion of a contentious legal battle, Cluff purchased a new home for her family. 

“I could not have found my way through it without these amazing and competent attorneys [at South Coastal Counties Legal Services],” Cluff said. “The work these legal aid lawyers do matters. It’s important. It has a generational effect.”

Click here to view event images.