Tag Archives: Civil Legal Aid

Justice System FY15 Budget Update

Last week the House Ways and Means Committee released its FY2015 budget proposal, which made a number of significant investments targeted to support local aid, substance abuse, behavioral and mental health, and higher education, while reducing reliance on one-time resources.  For our chief areas of interest in the justice system — judiciary funding in the form of: the trial court, legal services, and state attorneys — a number of challenges remain.  Here is the breakdown:

Trial Court funding

The Trial Court requested maintenance funding of $615 million for FY15.  This is the amount of money it would take for the Court to continue running at current capacity.  In addition, it proposed 10 “modules,” essentially packages of ideas and their costs that it could implement if funded, to update and innovate the courts.  These included plans for court service centers, specialty courts, electronic signage and information kiosks, and telecommunication enhancements.  The price for each module ranged from around $400,000 to $6.5 million.

  • UPDATE – Senate Ways and Means – $617 million
  • House Budget – $609 million
  • House Ways and Means Budget – $609 million – this amount is roughly $6 million less than the maintenance request, but still includes $2.7 million to fund the specialty courts module.
  • Governor’s Budget – $617.5 million – this amount represents maintenance funding and an additional $2.7 million to fund the specialty courts module.

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) Funding

MLAC requested $17 million for FY15.  This amount would cover current costs and allow for the hiring of 40 more attorneys in addition to offering some future stability.  This funding level would expand the amount of services its programs could provide to vulnerable residents across the state and also help boost the state economy.  As funding for civil legal aid has declined, mostly through a large drop in IOLTA revenue, the economic benefits resulting from civil legal aid have also dropped.  At the same time, the need for civil legal aid has grown — close to 1 million people in Massachusetts qualify for this aid, and programs currently turn away 50 to 70 percent of eligible residents.

  • UPDATE – Senate Ways & Means Budget – $13 million – Senator William Brownsberger and Senator Creem will file an amendment which would increase the MLAC budget line item to the requested $17 million.
  • House Budget – $15 million
  • House Ways and Means Budget – $13 million – Representative Ruth Balser has filed an amendment (#157) which would increase the MLAC budget line item to the requested $17 million.  We sent out an action alert to our members last week and received a number of positive responses.  Thank you to everyone who reached out to their representatives.  Fifty Representatives signed on to the amendment, and they can continue to sign-on in the coming weeks, so if you don’t see your representative’s name (don’t know their name?  Look them up here) on the amendment, please reach out.
  • Governor’s Budget – $14 million – only $1 million more than last year’s funding level and $3 million below MLAC’s request.

Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) Funding

CPCS requested a total budget of $219,399,885 for FY15.  Its maintenance request was $206,629,539.  The $12.7 million difference was to increase staff compensation and private bar hourly rates.  It is important to note when understanding CPCS’s line item that while the Governor’s budget attempts to account for the entire budget, the House Ways and Means recommendation underfunds the private counsel account because CPCS is considered a case-driven account for budgeting purposes.  This means that since CPCS cannot predict with exact certainty how many cases it will have to serve, it is provided with an initial appropriation with the understanding that, similar to other case-driven accounts, CPCS will submit supplemental increase requests as the fiscal year progresses.  The Legislature and Governor have consistently honored and funded these requests.  Neither the Governor nor the House Ways and Means budget propose any changes to the current CPCS service delivery system.

  • UPDATE – Senate Ways & Means – $180 million
  • House Budget$168 million
  • House Ways and Means Budget – $168 million appropriation.  This is an increase of approximately $5.6 million over the FY14 appropriation but is not enough to fund CPCS’s requested changes.  Representative Angelo M. Scaccia has filed two amendments that would achieve the CPCS salary and hourly rate increases.
  • Governor’s Budget – $191 million total appropriation.  This is a $29 million increase from the FY14 general appropriation, but is not sufficient to fund the requested increases for staff compensation or increases in hourly rates for assigned private counsel.

The House budget debate will take place during the week of April 28 to May 2.  The Senate will release its budget a couple weeks later, around May 14.  As always, we will keep you posted on the latest developments.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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Justice System Salaries: Spotlight on Civil Legal Aid Programs

When we talk about civil legal aid, inevitably the conversation focuses on clients and funding.  In Massachusetts, there are approximately 1.7 civil legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 people living under the federal poverty level.  To put that into context with the general population, there are about 70 lawyers for every 10,000 people.  Yet while the need for civil legal aid attorneys is immense, their pay is startlingly low.  The starting salary for civil legal aid attorneys is only slightly higher than those of public defenders and assistant district attorneys.  The pay for support staff is equally low.

With the reality of limited resources and growing needs, making a career in legal services often comes at great personal sacrifice.  As a result, many legal service employees have experienced financial struggles.  About 1 in 5 civil legal aid attorneys carry the burden of large law school debts, and some junior attorneys have refinanced their student loans over a longer time frame, some up to 30 years, to reduce the monthly payments.  A significant number of civil legal aid employees have withdrawn money from their retirement accounts to meet daily living expenses.  Imagine not being able to pay for a monthly T pass to get to work.  These are stories that we heard firsthand at the Boston Lawyer Chapter of the American Constitution Society’s program, The State of Legal Aid in Massachusetts: Opportunities and Challenges.  Like assistant district attorneys and public defenders, many staff and attorneys at our civil legal aid programs have taken second jobs just to get by.

In the past six years, the programs have done very little hiring due to budget cuts.  At most programs, staff took a 5 percent pay cut, this after 2 years of frozen salaries.  At least one program cut salaries to 80 percent.  Salary levels have since been restored, at least partially.  However, when there have been funds to hire new attorneys, it has been difficult to recruit them without some kind of loan forgiveness support from their law schools or the benefit of a fellowship program.  MLAC offers some limited loan assistance and in fiscal year 2013, they were able to assist 21 attorneys with loan payments.

Starting salaries are just part of the problem; attrition is another.  New attorneys are hired and trained and often leave for higher paying positions within a few years of starting.  This turnover makes it especially hard to establish a new core of experienced attorneys who are experts in their fields.

Greater Boston Legal Services, the biggest legal aid program in the state, has been spending its reserves to keep staff, and even so, GBLS hasn’t been able to stem the tide of lawyers leaving.  If GBLS faces these problems, consider the issues confronting smaller programs in other parts of Massachusetts.

Though senior civil legal aid attorneys make slightly higher salaries, they are not immune from these struggles.  Legal aid attorneys are not state employees and therefore do not take part in the state retirement benefit structure.  This means that a number of civil legal aid attorneys in their 60s and 70s face impending retirement with nothing but social security and their personal savings.

One only needs to look around to see the important work of legal aid attorneys, from neighbors staying in their homes, to the sick receiving medical care, to handicap accessibility renovations for buildings and public spaces.  Civil legal aid attorneys provide social values far beyond their meager pay, and thus it is essential that we keep them in mind when we talk about the delivery of justice.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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Update on the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts

The BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts met for the fifth time at the end of January.  We are making great progress as we gather facts, information, and real life stories of people whose lives have changed for the better because of assistance they received from legal aid attorneys. 

The Task Force is composed of 27 leaders in the Boston legal community, including representatives from private practice, in-house counsel, academia, every branch of government, and legal services.  The Task Force was formed in the spring of 2013 and has had regular meetings almost every other month. 

In early meetings, Task Force members worked to draft surveys for legal services providers and judges to quantify facts and observations on civil litigation and aid.  They devised three surveys and sent them out to the appropriate players.  The Task Force created two legal services surveys – a “use of funds” and a “turn-away” survey.  These surveys would show how many cases legal services providers completed in a year, how many people they turned away over two single-week periods, and how much legal assistance they provided short of representation.  Results are still coming in, but the legal aid providers have been extremely supportive, helping us reach nearly 100% participation.

The “judges’ survey” asked for judges’ observations on unrepresented civil litigants in their courtrooms and for their ideas on how to increase representation.  Thanks to the support of Chief Justice Paula Carey and her staff, we were able to electronically distribute the Task Force’s survey to all 400 Massachusetts state court judges.  So far, nearly 100 judges statewide have responded with thoughtful and well-reasoned answers. 

Our outside analysts who are donating their time pro bono are still analyzing the data, drawing conclusions, and working to find ways to graphically represent the numbers in a meaningful way. 

They are also working on three in-depth studies to quantify potential cost-savings for the Commonwealth from civil legal aid funding.  These studies are in the areas of domestic violence; housing, evictions, and homelessness; and federal benefits that can flow into the state as a result of civil legal services.  All of these studies are nearing completion.

Finally, the Task Force was able to put a human face on the numbers we had been talking about for months.  In November, we were joined by a legal services client who was able to escape homelessness with her young daughter thanks to civil legal aid.  In January, we heard from a client who regained child custody from an abusive spouse.  Their stories were moving and provided striking examples of why the Task Force’s work is so important – the successful resolution of their legal matters would not have been possible without the assistance of a civil legal aid attorney.

The Task Force has two remaining meetings in the spring when it will draft and finalize its much anticipated report.  We will keep you updated on all its latest news.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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Another Victory for Civil Gideon

Due process rights recently took another step forward as Hawai’i joined the overwhelming majority of states that automatically appoint counsel for indigent parents in child welfare proceedings.  On January 6th, the Hawai’i Supreme Court held unanimously that indigent parents have a constitutional right to legal counsel in cases where the state seeks to remove children from their parents’ home and place them into the foster care system. 

Under Massachusetts law, legal counsel must be appointed within 14 days of a petition filed for care and protection proceedings.  These are difficult cases in which a juvenile court judge must decide what is in the best interest of the child.  The judge determines whether a child has been or is at risk of serious abuse or neglect by a parent or guardian, whether the guardian is fit to care for the child, and who will have custody.   

The ruling in Hawai’i came in the case of In The Interest Of TM, in which the Department of Human Services (DHS) tried to take custody of a child from the petitioner.  The petitioner was not granted counsel until 19 months into proceedings terminating her parental rights.  The Hawai’i Supreme Court held that the Family Court abused its discretion by failing to appoint counsel earlier, noting that the delay did not give the petitioner a fair chance to defend herself due to the complex legal issues at hand and the significance of the proceedings.  Furthermore, the Court noted that the petitioner’s behavior improved significantly after the appointment of an attorney – she started making positive progress in her personal and home life, in large part because she was better able to understand what she needed to do in order to have a chance at custody of her child.   

When a state doesn’t require and subsidize legal counsel, the alternative is often pro se litigants who are at a major disadvantage at achieving justice.  The stakes are high in these cases and everyone should be represented by an attorney. 

 

Don’t forget to mark your calendars on Thursday, January 30th for the 15th annual Walk to the Hill.  This event, where 650 lawyers speak with legislators and staffers on the impact of civil legal aid funding in Massachusetts, is one of the largest of its kind nationally and kicks off the year of advocating for legal services.

 

UPDATE – For those looking for more information after last week’s post, we recommend this video on juvenile justice issues in which attorney Hank Coxe gives an entertaining and moving speech on the subject.

  – Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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Walk to the Hill, But Make Sure You See Your Legislators Too

The Equal Justice Coalition’s Walk to the Hill is coming up very soon – on January 30th at 11 a.m. at the Massachusetts State House.

While this lobbying event – one of the largest of its kind — is an opportunity to socialize, network and get your picture taken with your law firm, Walk to the Hill needs to be more than that.  It’s great that lawyers show up en masse for the speaking program – this year Chief Justice Ireland, BBA President J.D. Smeallie and a legal services client are among those that will speak to the need for more funding for civil legal services.  But let’s remember that even more important is your visit with your legislator.  More than ceremonial, these visits really matter.

Here are a few tips to maximize your effectiveness at Walk to the Hill:

If you get to your representative or senator’s office and there is a long line of other lawyers waiting to deliver the same message, don’t be discouraged.  Be encouraged!  You live in a district full of people that care about this issue.  But don’t assume that because there is a crowd your presence isn’t noticed – leave your name and business card with someone in the office with a note that you want the representative or senator to support legal aid.  Numbers matter – the more people that leave their name, the better.

If your legislator is not available, speak to a staff member.  In most cases the staff person is often the one with the most knowledge on an issue.  Legislative staff welcomes the input of constituents on issues.  Staff members often act as gatekeepers and make recommendations or put issues on their boss’ radar. Winning over the staff member is one of the best ways to win over the representative or senator.

If you learn your legislator does support funding for civil legal aid and you feel like you are preaching to the converted, take this opportunity to thank them for their continued support and ask them to do more.  Ask the legislator to make funding for MLAC one of his or her top three budget priorities.

If you sense that your legislator could use more information about civil legal aid programs, follow up with facts easily obtained from MLAC.  Funding for civil legal aid has been severely cut in recent years while requests for legal assistance have escalated to unprecedented levels.

If you’re a new lawyer, solo practitioner or part of a smaller firm, don’t be dissuaded from coming.  Every year the BBA’s New Lawyer and Solo & Small Firm Sections meet as a group and head over to the State House together.

Prepare yourself with the most up-to-date information from the Equal Justice Coalition using this fact sheet and review their suggested talking points.  This will allow you to make your pitch quickly while hitting all of the key points.

Walk to the Hill is more than just a symbolic showing of support for legal aid funding.  It is a demonstration of the impact legal aid makes on peoples’ lives and the important role it plays in our communities.  As important as the message is – legal aid is in crisis and the MLAC line item must be funded at $15.5 million for Fiscal Year 14 – personally delivering your message is  even more important.  This year we ask that you do more than show up – follow up with your representative and senator too.

 

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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