June marked 800 years since the restless barons of England
challenged King John to relinquish his claim of "Divine Right" and
submit to the rule of law by signing the Magna Carta. Our legal
legacy flows from that moment, through the Glorious Revolution of
1688, to our own American Revolution and Constitution and later,
the creation of Atlantic Charter and the United Nations Declaration
of Human Rights.
The touchstone of this progression is that the law, at its most
basic level, is about fairness and justice for all. Unfortunately,
in Massachusetts and around the country, equal justice for all is
still just an aspiration for many -- not a reality. This is
especially true in civil cases, where low-income litigants often
face trials and administrative hearings without the advice or
representation of an attorney. While those accused of committing a
crime have a right to an attorney, people facing non-criminal legal
issues related to some of life's most basic rights and protections
-- safe shelter, fair employment, freedom from discrimination, and
access to health care, to name a few -- have no such right. As
Martha Bergmark, executive director of the national organization
Voices for Civil Justice, herself a former legal aid attorney,
recently put it in an op-ed for the Washington Post, "Many
people suffer crushing losses in court not because they've done
something wrong, but simply because they don't have legal
Civil legal aid exists to bridge this justice gap and protect
the most vulnerable among us, providing free legal advice and
representation to people living at or below 125 percent of the
federal poverty level, or $30,313 a year for a family of four.
Civil legal assistance touches matters of housing, employment,
domestic violence and family law. It has the potential to change
people's lives, helping them stay in their homes and at their jobs
and access health coverage, education and other benefits to which
they are entitled.
Despite being a critical resource for low-income individuals and
families across the commonwealth, civil legal aid is woefully
underfunded. "Investing in Justice," a report by the Boston Bar
Association (BBA) Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in
Massachusetts, found that, in 2014, 64 percent of residents
eligible for civil legal aid who sought services were turned away
by legal aid programs that lacked the resources to serve them.
Likewise, nationally, more than half of those who qualify for civil
legal aid are turned away from services for lack of resources,
according "Documenting the Justice Gap in America," a report by the
Legal Services Corporation.
This is not just the result of cumulative budget cuts to
government funding of civil legal aid and dwindling interest on
trust accounts (known as IOLTA funding) which contributes funding
to civil legal aid programs. It's also due to the overwhelming lack
of support from the nation's largest and most profitable law firms.
In its cover story, "How Big Law Is Failing Legal Aid," The
American Lawyer last month detailed how leading law firms
contribute a miniscule 0.1 percent of their revenues to civil legal
aid funding, favoring other charities and causes instead. An
editorial accompanying the article summarized the problem thusly:
"Legal aid is the ugly duckling of charities. There's no celebrity
spokesman. No puppies or radiant children. No viral videos
promoting an ice-bucket challenge. There's just that
deer-in-the-headlights look of millions of poor Americans who face
child support hearings, custody fights, evictions and more without
a clue about how to navigate the courts and without the benefit of
counsel," wrote editor-in-chief Kim Kleman. "And that sorry look
hasn't translated into sufficient donations for legal aid."
Meanwhile, the collective revenue of the top 200 law firms in
the country surpassed the $100 billion mark last year.
Lawmakers in Massachusetts recently approved a $2 million
increase in funding of civil legal aid programs in the state. As we
wait to see if Gov. Charlie Baker will approve this increase (at
press time, Baker's budget included this increase), and await the
response to The American Lawyer's devastating report, I am
reminded of what former President Jimmy Carter once said about the
founding of this country: "America did not invent human rights. In
a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented
We are the first and most successful experiment in
self-government, whose foundation is the Declaration of
Independence and the Constitution. Though they comprise thousands
of words, the heart of both documents can be found in the ideal of
equal justice for all. That is what we stand for, and it is what we
should speak up for as well, be it in the halls of government or in
the boardrooms of our most prestigious law firms.
John Carroll is an attorney at Meehan, Boyle, Black
& Bogdanow. He is the MBA representative on and chair of the
Equal Justice Coalition.
This article was originally published on WGBH.org.