Lawyers, bar association leaders and advocates are urging Massachusetts legislators to allocate more money for civil legal aid programs in the next state budget. They say the past few years showed an increased demand for these programs, which provide low-income residents with free legal advice and representation.
Hundreds of people attended a virtual event Thursday in support of a $49 million allocation, including some heavy hitters in Boston’s legal circles, such as Gov. Maura Healey and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd. The budget-writing process for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, is revving up as the governor drafts her ideas for tens of billions in state spending.
“Our legal system is dedicated to the principle of providing equal justice for all,” Budd said. “But too often we fall short of the ideal because many people still lack the legal resources that they need to present their cases in the courts, and our legal aid organizations who work tirelessly simply do not have enough funding to provide counsel for everyone who comes to them seeking help.”
Budd said in the last three years, civil legal aid cases involving unemployment insurance quadrupled from pre-pandemic figures, and that domestic violence cases, housing and immigration all increased by 20%.
Fewer people were turned away from legal aid services this past year thanks to state funding — but advocates say more is needed.
Louis Tompros, chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, which hosted Thursday's event, said last year state dollars helped cut down on how many qualified recipients had to be turned away by legal aid programs across the state: 47% last year, down from 57% the year before.
“More funding means more people being served, and yet there remains a huge unmet need,” he said. “Almost half of low-income residents in crisis and needing a lawyer are still turned away.”
The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation funnels state funds to dozens of civil legal aid organizations in Massachusetts. It was established by the state in 1983 to ensure that low-income people have access to legal information and representation in noncriminal legal cases — this year, for instance, families of four who earn $37,500 or less qualify. Last year, the state appropriated $41 million to the organization.
Simi Dalyop, a recent graduate from Wesleyan University, shared her personal story of how legal representation from one of the Massachusetts programs changed her life.
After her village in Nigeria was attacked by a terrorist group a few years ago, she made the decision not to return home.
“It was the hardest decision I had to make, but I did because I didn’t have a future there going back,” Dalyop said over Zoom.
Dalyop was 16 years old at the time. She got help from an attorney with a local legal aid program, the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, received special immigrant juvenile status and later enrolled in college.
Dalyop said she is grateful for the work of a legal aid attorney Jay McManus, who helped her obtain residency in the United States.
“Just having hope and actualizing dreams that I never thought I would accomplish in life,” Dalyop said. “Lives have been changed through their work. It goes a long way to transform one’s life. and they’re doing an incredible job in giving people that opportunity.”
President of the Massachusetts Bar Association Grace Garcia said the appeal for funding from the legal community every year shows the power lawyers have to act as a voice for those they serve.
“It is important that we use our platform here today and going forward to speak to those whose survival needs will remain unmet without additional funding,” she said.
Equal justice for all was a common theme throughout the program. Budd cited a recent nationwide poll by the National Center for State Courts that found people’s faith in state courts is falling.
“The responses from people of color were particularly concerning,” she said. “Approximately 60% of Black and Hispanic respondents said that the phrase ‘provides equal justice for all’ does not describe state courts.”
Jacquelynne Bowman, the executive director of Greater Boston Legal Services, also gave talking points to lawyers, law students and advocates for how to get a commitment from lawmakers that they would support the increased funding.
“We want legislators to know that all lawyers care about access to justice,” Bowman said. “Legal aid makes a difference in the lives of our clients in assuring access, that much has been clearly demonstrated by the challenges exposed by the pandemic.”
Budd referenced the recent Embrace sculpture erected on Boston Common two weeks ago, commemorating the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. In her remarks, she quoted the famous phrase that King wrote in his letter from Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“When you speak to your legislators, remind them that funding for civil legally isn’t just another appropriation, it is a fundamental step toward realizing the foundational promise of our legal system for everyone that we will provide equal justice for all,” Budd said.