The 19th Annual Walk to the Hill drew an enormous crowd to the State House to ask legislators to expand civil legal aid funding. Advocates, including the Massachusetts Bar Association, are seeking a $5 million increase in the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation’s fiscal year 2019 budget appropriation, for a total appropriation of $23 million.
In his opening remarks, Equal Justice Coalition chair Louis Tompros contrasted a few cringe-worthy lawyer jokes with the hundreds of lawyers in attendance to make a point that unflattering stereotypes assigned to the legal profession are entirely undeserved in the commonwealth. But he stressed that the resources to handle legal aid needs are still lacking. He said: “Last year, MLAC programs handled 22,911 cases, helping over 83,000 low-income people from across Massachusetts. … More than 60 percent of people who need a lawyer and qualify for civil legal aid are nonetheless turned away; there just is not enough funding to meet the need. That’s why we’re here.”
Tompros then introduced Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, who gave further statistical evidence for the dire need for more civil legal aid funding, but developed another argument to strengthen the case for its expanded funding: “Legal aid programs provide the training that allows pro bono attorneys, including many in this hall, to learn what they need to know when they volunteer to help those in need,” Gants said. Boston Bar Association President Mark Smith followed Gants’ remarks by pointing out, “For every dollar invested in civil legal aid, between $2 and $5 is returned to the commonwealth.”
MBA President Christopher P. Sullivan picked up the theme Chief Justice Gants introduced when he said, “The immigrant crisis and its ensuing chaos will demand much more civil legal aid.” He doubled down on the association’s commitment to providing justice for all. “The MBA is very proud of its advocacy on behalf of civil legal aid, particularly the work we’ve done in partnership with MLAC and the Equal Justice Coalition,” Sullivan said. “As the preeminent voice of the legal profession, the MBA also believes that we, we the lawyers of our commonwealth, must be the voice for our most vulnerable citizens.” He concluded his remarks by urging attendees to tell legislators to “protect our values by adequately funding civil legal aid.”
Before the gathered attorneys dispersed to speak with legislators for expanded funding, the audience heard the stirring personal account of Danielle Flint, a young single mother of three who thanked Greater Boston Legal Services for obtaining a successful resolution for her seven-year legal battle to obtain disability benefits for one of her daughters, who has sickle cell disease. Recounting an interaction with Taramattie Doucette, her GBLS attorney, Flint said: “I told her I have no more fight left in me. … She looked me straight in the eye and told me, ‘You worry about your daughter, let us take care of the legal stuff.’”
Flint earned a standing ovation when she said: “I stand before you as a success story because the project never gave up on me; they never stopped fighting for my family. They allowed me to be a parent. I didn’t have to learn how to be a lawyer on top of learning this complicated illness. Instead I could go to school, get my education to provide stability for my family. Today, I have my master’s degree in social work. I am a licensed clinical social worker. … I’m here today to say ‘thank you’ again to GBLS and to ask you to support civil legal aid so that other families like mine can get the help they need.”