Civil Legal Aid In Danger, Advocates Say

By Sarah Birnbaum

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Feb. 23, 2011

BOSTON — Massachusetts attorneys are pushing lawmakers to preserve funding for civil legal aid to poor residents.

On Tuesday, over 300 lawyers rallied at the State House to make the case for civil legal aid. They worry that lawmakers might try to cut legal services for the poor in order to help close a $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

Unlike criminal defense for the poor, which is constitutionally required, civil legal aid refers to a variety of non-criminal matters. 

Natasha Torres, of Oxford, says her family turned to legal aid when her mother fell victim to a predatory lender, then lost her job and couldn't keep up with the mortgage. 

Torres says that without the help of legal aid, she would have been evicted from her home. "I already had a letter of auction for my home.  They’re the ones who put the stop to the auction, and that’s how we kept moving forward, after that,” Torres said.

Bob Sable, the executive director of Greater Boston legal services, says he's worried about people like the Torres family.
 
"The hard truth is that for every client like Ms. Torres, we usually turn somebody away because we just don’t have the resources,” Sable said.  

Sable says the main source of funding for civil legal aid is interest payments on lawyers' trust accounts.  Since that's been going down, he's particularly concerned about state funding. 
 
Governor Patrick wants to keep state funding for civil legal aid at $9.5 million next year. Sable says that's not enough to solve the funding crisis, but it's workable.  Advocates warn that the House or Senate could still decide to cut funding down the road. 
 
The House budget is due in April.

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