Hundreds of lawyers turn out to advocate for civil legal aid funding at the Annual Walk to the Hill

Issue March 2013 By Jennifer Rosinski

More than 650 lawyers assembled at the State House on Jan. 30 to request their legislators support Gov. Deval L. Patrick's fiscal year 2014 budget recommendation of $15.5 million for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

The 14th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid featured a visit from Patrick, who told attendees in the standing room only Great Hall of Flags that civil legal aid is necessary.

"I value what you do. I value on whose behalf you do it," Patrick said. "We do not have to be victims of economic circumstance. We can shape our own future."

The largest single funding source for civil legal aid in Massachusetts, MLAC received a $12 million appropriation from the state this fiscal year.

Legal aid programs are often the last resort for low-income people in Massachusetts, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland said.

"Without these services, indigent clients often try to navigate the legal system on their own, or give up hope … The results can be devastating," he said. "We are here today to help balance the scales of justice."

The Jan. 30 event was presented by the Equal Justice Coalition, the MBA and the Boston Bar Association, and was co-sponsored by 30 county and specialty bar associations.

Civil legal aid programs have been struggling to meet demand due to a 78 percent decrease in revenue since fiscal year 2008 from the Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts program, the other major funding source for civil legal aid. MLAC has cut grants to the 16 legal aid programs it funds by 56 percent since fiscal year 2008.

"We need to have adequate finding for civil legal aid services," MBA President Robert L. Holloway Jr. said.

"The bottom line is we have a system in place there the funding is the lowest when the need is the greatest," Boston Bar Association President James D. Smeallie said. "Thus, it is critical that the state step in to increase funding for civil legal services to assure access to justice for our citizens who are most in need of it."

Civil legal aid saved her life, said Daniele Bien-Aime of Brockton. The former South Coastal Counties Legal Services client lost her job, health insurance, and was in danger of becoming homeless during her battle with breast cancer. The advocacy of a legal aid attorney helped Bien-Aime get her job back, providing her with health insurance to finish her cancer treatment and the income needed to keep her in her home.

"My legal aid attorney was Heaven-sent," Bien-Amie said. "I don't know what I would have done without her help, and I am grateful to everyone who supports the funding that enables these lawyers to continue to help people like me."