Seventh annual "Walk to the Hill" to improve access to civil justice is a success

Issue April 2006 By Andrea R. Barter, Esq.

On March 7, hundreds of attorneys from large and small firms and from every practice area joined forces to participate in the seventh annual "Walk to the Hill" to increase funding for civil legal services.

A standing-room-only crowd heard from presidents of bar associations, representatives of the Equal Justice Coalition and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and Speaker of the House Salvatore DiMasi, but it was evident that the comments of Eileen Ryan, a single mother who had been a client of neighborhood legal services in Lynn, provided the true inspiration for the attendees' lobbying efforts.

Ryan, who served in the U.S. Air Force for eight years, has three children. Her second child was born with cerebral palsy and has required 14 surgeries. Her youngest child has chronic kidney disease. In 1997, she went on welfare to care for him. According to Ryan, she only learned of the availability of Neighborhood Legal Services when she saw the phone number on a letter informing her that her SSI benefits were going to end.

Neighborhood Legal Services was able to get her benefits reinstated. Since then, Ryan has become the vice president of the Board of Neighborhood Legal Services in Lynn; she is now a member of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission; she has a daughter in college and her son is a happy 13-year-old. For that, "I want to thank all the attorneys for supporting the work of Neighborhood Legal Services," said Ryan.

Co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association and the Equal Justice Coalition, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation organizes this annual petition to the Legislature to increase funding for civil legal aid.

This year, MLAC is asking legislators to increase funding by $3.5 million to address the shortage of civil legal services for low-income people in the commonwealth. Legal aid programs provide advice and representation to those who cannot afford to pay for private attorneys and who have significant civil legal problems involving domestic violence, child custody and support, healthcare, housing disability benefits, elder abuse or similar issues.

One of the major challenges to be overcome in expanding access to civil justice is the lack of understanding by the public, legislators and even members of the legal community about the civil legal needs of low-income people and the importance of civil legal assistance:

• Low-income households in Massachusetts experience a per-household average of almost three legal needs per year.

• At most, only 16.4 percent of those low-income households with a legal need sought help from a private or legal aid lawyer. The predominant reason given for not seeking help was the sense that getting a lawyer would not help and that it would cost too much.

• A large percentage of low-income people experiencing a problem with a legal dimension do not understand that there may be a legal solution.

• A majority of low-income people either do not know about the availability of free legal services or do not understand that they are financially eligible for them.

• A majority of eligible callers are turned away from legal aid programs every day due to the shortage of resources. Those turned away often appear in court unrepresented, and therefore, at a severe disadvantage. And, because they are unfamiliar with the courts, these litigants slow the system for everyone.

Last year, the Supreme Judicial Court created a permanent state Access to Justice Commission, a broadly inclusive body, chaired by former Chief Justice Herbert Wilkins, that engaged in a comprehensive study of the state's delivery system.

Other entities currently involved in expanding access to justice include the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which receives and distributes state and a portion of IOLTA funding and coordinates planning efforts; the Massachusetts and Boston Bar Foundations, which fund civil legal aid programs with IOLTA income and private contributions; the Massachusetts Equal Justice Coalition, which supports state funding for legal aid; the Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services, charged with recommending ways to increase the level of pro bono participation in the state; and the Supreme Judicial Court Steering Committee on Self-Represented Litigants, charged with coordinating the judicial branch's response to the growing number of pro se litigants.

"Clearly, the Massachusetts legal community has accomplished a great deal," said MBA President Warren Fitzgerald, addressing the attorneys gathered in the Statehouse's Great Hall. "But increasing funding for civil legal assistance is necessary to expand access to civil justice … Providing legal assistance to those who face an economic barrier to adequate legal counsel will serve the ends of justice, assist in improving opportunities for low-income persons and reaffirm their faith in our government of laws."