The State House is full to the gills with lawyers on a daily basis, but once a year, the state's legal community comes to government's doorstep with a big demand: more money for poor people seeking legal help.
The cause that brought hundred of lawyers to Beacon Hill Thursday was to increase funding for civil legal aid, the money the state provides to programs that connect attorneys to people in need of non-criminal legal advice without the means to pay for it.
"Justice should never equate to money. People should not go without justice because there's not money to provide it," Massachusetts Bar Association President Bob Harnais told WGBH News at the rally.
Lisa Russo's son was in rehab under MassHealth when he lost his health insurance. She credits the free legal help they received for winning their appeal and saving her son's life.
"Greater Boston legal service was able to work with MassHealth to resolve the issue in a matter of days... Something my son and I could never have done," Russo said.
Like many of the programs the state funds, civil legal aid is agreed upon by virtually everyone, but that doesn't mean budget writers are any more apt to cough up increased funds through the perpetually tight-wadded budget process.
At the head of the troop of lobbying lawyers was the state's top judge, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants.
"I don't lobby. I advocate. But I'm not shy about advocating because it's a cause that's extraordinarily important to the interest of justice," Gants said before addressing the crowd assembled by the advocacy group the Equal Justice Coalition.
According to a spokeswoman for the Equal Justice Coalition, civil legal aid programs in the state turn down more than 60 percent of eligible clients who seek legal services, leaving poorer citizens from Pittsfield to Provincetown on their own when faced with challenges involving housing court, domestic violence situations, education disputes or other civil cases.
The advocates say that spending on legal aid is a solid investment for the state, as it returns a lot of benefits. Proponents claim increases services for the poor in court results in fewer people facing eviction, more access to federal benefits and a myriad of other less tangible outcomes.
This year's Walk to the Hill event is the 17th annual time advocates have rallied at the State House and pushed state leaders to increase funding for legal service for the poor.
This year, hundreds of private attorneys from 40 law firms around the state want Gov. Charlie Baker and Legislative budget writers to add $10 million to the budget for civil legal aid.
Gov. Charlie Baker's budget recommendation for fiscal year 2017 proposes boosting civil legal aid by just one percent, far less than the nearly 60 percent the attorneys and advocates lobbying Thursday are demanding. With a goal of another $10 million dollars each year for the next three years, the legal community's ask is a big one, equalling a 176.5 percent funding hike from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2019.
But at least Baker's one percent increase wasn't a cut, which some advocates see as a starting point to work on the Legislature, who have final say over budgeting, to get more money.
“The Baker-Polito Administration is pleased that our budget proposal continues reducing the inherited structural deficit of over a billion dollars while increasing investments in a number of important areas, including civil legal aid, without raising taxes or fees," Brendan Moss, a spokesman for Baker's Administration and Finance office, said in a statement.
The ralliers were shown a video at the event that featured court personnel and low-income Massachusetts residents make the case for more funds.
The video was in keeping with a larger theme from many of the attorneys at who gathered in the State House's Great Hall Thursday: Lawmakers need to see what litigants go through at packed courthouses every day when they are forced to sit in long lines to represent themselves before overworked judges.
"Civil justice is of course what we do and we declare that we aspire to equal justice but the only way we can achieve equal justice is if we have attorneys available who can represent those most in need," Gants said.
According to Gants, the courts struggle to identify who is most in need of legal assistance and triage those who come before the court accordingly.
"Right now, we can't be assured that all of those will have access to counsel and we need the funds we're asking for today to accomplish that," Gants said.