Equal Justice Coalition's "Walk to the Hill for Legal Aid" on March 7 seeks $3.5 million increase in program funds

Issue February 2006 By Pattye Comfort, Equal Justice Coalition director

Editor's Note: A version of this article will appear in the upcoming Section Review.

The Equal Justice Coalition, MBA President Warren Fitzgerald and hundreds of attorneys will push for a significant increase in legal aid funding at this year's "Walk to the Hill for Legal Aid" on Tuesday, March 7.

Last year's efforts resulted in a $1 million increase in the state's appropriation for civil legal aid. This was a victory, in no small part attributable to the hundreds of private attorneys who participated in the "Walk to the Hill" and responded to e-mail alerts throughout the year-long state budget campaign.

The private bar has shown spectacular common cause with civil legal aid by packing the Great Hall of the State House for the Equal Justice Coalition's annual "Walk to the Hill for Legal Aid" for the past seven years.

At last year's walk, a record 400 attorneys used their lunch hour to come to Beacon Hill to urge their legislators to increase the state's appropriation for civil legal aid. These 400 attorneys came from 34 firms in the downtown Boston area and from as far away as Worcester. This impressive crowd included managing partners, bar presidents and law school deans. Co-sponsoring the event were 21 county, minority and specialty bar associations.

The EJC has also been successful in recruiting general counsel of leading Massachusetts companies to get involved in advocating for increased state funding for civil legal services programs. Last year, 60 general counsel (including the general counsel for Verizon and General Electric) signed a letter to Gov. Mitt Romney and the legislative leadership urging increased funding for legal aid.

This year, MLAC hopes to obtain legislative approval for a $3.5 million increase. The total funding Ñ approximately $12 million Ñ will be used for general support for all legal service programs as well as for other specific projects, such as battered women, disability and the Medicare advocacy projects. MLAC seeks only a cost-of-living increase for the special projects; the majority of any funding increase will be targeted to general support.

"Attorneys see the need for legal services first-hand in their work. That's what makes them such strong and influential allies," said Donna Southwell, communications director, Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. "We have gotten a lot of feedback from legislators that they are impressed by the broad support from the legal community."

Every day many low-income residents in the Ccommonwealth are denied access to justice because they cannot afford to hire an attorney to help them navigate the civil legal system. By providing free legal advice and representation to domestic violence victims, families on the verge of homelessness, elder victims of consumer fraud and others like them, the eighteen18 civil legal services programs throughout Massachusetts help bring the scales of justice into balance.

Residents with incomes below 125 percent of the poverty line ($465 per week for a family of four) rely on these local programs for assistance with serious civil legal issues.

However, legal services funding, which comes from the state and federal governments and a variety of private sources, is insufficient to meet the need. As a result, the majority of eligible people who call a legal aid program for help must be turned away.

The Equal Justice Coalition was created in 1999 by the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. Its membership comprises a diverse group of more than 160 individuals and organizations who are united in the conviction that adequate funding for civil legal services is needed to make the constitutional imperative of justice for all a reality. The EJC's mission is to expand access to justice through support for state funding for legal services.

"Other areas need flexibility right now in terms of how they spend their money, not to mention that they just need more money," said Southwell.

"One of the most worthwhile initiatives which the MBA undertakes is our participation in the Equal Justice Coalition's Walk to the Hill each year," said MBA President Warren Fitzgerald. "Our members should be proud of their support to ensure funding for legal services in Massachusetts. I urge all MBA members, their colleagues and friends to join us on March 7 during our annual Walk to the Hill to promote this most important cause."

To participate, join your colleagues in the Great Hall in the Statehouse at 11 a.m. on March 7. Your lunch hour can make the difference for low-income people who desperately need civil legal services.