Joining hands for equal justice

Issue June 2007

The Massachusetts Constitution provides,"Every subject of the commonwealth ought to obtain right and justice freely, and without being obliged to purchase it; completely, and without any denial; promptly, and without delay; conformably to the laws." Both the Massachusetts and the United States Constitutions mandate that indigent citizens facing criminal charges must be competently represented. When the commonwealth fails to provide experienced defense counsel, citizens charged with crimes are denied the fundamental rights of a fair and speedy trial with effective assistance of counsel. When legal services for the poor are denied, we all suffer.

At the foundation of the Massachusetts Bar Association's mission is the goal to "promote reform in the law, to facilitate the administration of justice." The Boston Bar Association traces its lineage to John Adams,whose dedication to equal justice continues to inspire the BBA. Together, the MBA and the BBA have preserved a proud history of promoting funding for legal aid. When the need has become most urgent, both bar associations have joined hands and taken action to ensure equal access to justice.

In recognition of the long history the associations have enjoyed in preserving the right to effective assistance of counsel for the poor, the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation recently nominated the MBA and BBA to receive the American Bar Association and National Legal Aid and Defender Association's 2007 Harrison Tweed Award. Together, MLAC and CPCS are responsible for virtually all representation of the poor in Massachusetts.The MBA was greatly flattered by nominations from organizations as distinguished as MLAC and CPCS.

The Harrison Tweed Award was created in 1956 to recognize the extraordinary achievements of state and local bar associations which develop or significantly expand programs to increase access to civil legal services or criminal defense services for indigents. I am pleased to report that the MBA and BBA have been named as the joint recipients of the 2007 Harrison Tweed Award. The MBA is honored to share in the award with our friends and colleagues at the BBA.

In celebrating our achievement, we herald not just the MBA's institutional dedication to equal access to justice, we celebrate the successful collaboration between the commonwealth's two largest bar associations.The benefit our citizenry has derived as a result of such co-venture evidences the synergy created when bar associations combine their resources, energy and will.The collaborative efforts of the bar in advancing equal access to justice are not new. In 1999, the MBA, BBA and MLAC created the Equal Justice Coalition. The EJC's membership now comprises a diverse group of more than 180 individuals and organizations, including many bar associations throughout the commonwealth.

The mission of the EJC is to expand access to justice through support for state funding for legal services. The EJC's Annual Walk to the Hill for Legal Aid has made a powerful impact on Beacon Hill over the past seven years. This year, are cord-breaking 500 attorneys urged their legislators to increase the commonwealth's appropriation for civil legal aid. The EJC has succeeded, as well, in recruiting general counsel in leading Massachusetts companies to become involved in advocating for increased state funding for civil legal services program. The EJC's efforts have resulted in a $1 million increase in the commonwealth's appropriation for civil legal aid in 2005.

The MBA and BBA's collaborative efforts in ensuring legal services for indigent idividuals are not limited to the Equal Justice Coalition. Both association shave a proud history of assisting CPCS in its efforts to establish and maintain effective assistance of counsel in court-appointed matters. Both associations have performed extraordinary work in advocating for fair and reasonable compensation for bar advocates. Collaborating with bar associations throughout the commonwealth,the MBA and BBA worked to ensure passage of landmark legislation in 2005 increasing private counsel hourly rates and creating a statewide network virtually doubling the size of CPCS' attorney staff.Importantly, both associations have continuously supported county-based bar advocate programs.

Although the Massachusetts legal community continues to make strides in improving access to justice for all Massachusetts citizens, it is a frustrating reality that the resources available continually fall short of the need. With a budget deficit over $1 billion, the hard-won gains for the right to counsel have become endangered once again. Indeed, were the budget proposal set forth in House 1 to been acted by the Legislature, the commonwealth would be taking a step backward in the fight to provide our neediest with counsel. As before, the MBA and BBA have responded by demanding full funding for MLAC and CPCS.

At the core of our ability to meet then eed for legal assistance is increased fundingat the state level. Such funding will ensure all Massachusetts citizens have access to appropriate legal counsel regardless of the economic barriers they may face.

Let's continue to level the playing field. By properly funding legal aid, we will have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the livelihood of many low-income families throughout our commonwealth. We urge our legislators, hence, to continue their good work in ensuring adequate representation for our most vulnerable citizens and request that the General Court restore the funding necessary to ensure equal access to justice.