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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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Statehouse Update

This week both Governor Patrick and Speaker DeLeo outlined their priorities for the upcoming year.  In his final State of the Commonwealth on Tuesday night, Governor Patrick emphasized investments in education, innovation, and infrastructure. 

The next day, Speaker DeLeo addressed the entire House of Representatives, listing an increase in minimum wage coupled with business-friendly reforms, stricter gun control laws, and a domestic violence bill as three of his top issues. 

As we focus on legislative and budget activities at the Statehouse it’s important to realize that although this legislative term may appear uneventful from the outside, it has been full of activity.  Even without high-profile debates on big-issue bills there’s a lot going on. 

Take for instance, the fact that there has been an unprecedented amount of turnover in elected officials and leadership positions.  Recently, long time House Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, announced his resignation to become corporation counsel to Boston Mayor Martin Walsh.  This leaves the House chairmanship open.  Meanwhile, Senator William Brownsberger has only held the Senate chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee for a matter of weeks. 

Other leadership positions currently vacant include the House second assistant majority leader and the chairmanship of the House Ethics Committee.  These positions will all be filled in the coming weeks.

Legislatively, the statehouse is poised to take action on a number of laws.  Significant bills addressing welfare reform, compounding pharmacies, and veterans services remain in conference committees.  Just last week, a group of lawmakers held a press conference in support of a juvenile justice bill comply with the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling in Diatchenko.  The bill requires that juveniles convicted of first degree murder serve 35 years before parole eligibility. 

From a budget perspective – the Governor’s budget has been released and we now turn our attention to the House and Senate as they develop their budget numbers.  The House Ways & Means Budget will come first in early April, followed by House and Senate budgets in the following months.  A final budget will be ready by July 1st

All in all, every indication points to a very eventful next few months as staffing and leadership positions are filled and legislation and budget discussions come to the fore.     

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
Comments are disabled for this blog. To submit your comments please e-mail  issuespot@bostonbar.org

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