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13 for ’13

As 2013 draws to a close, here’s a timeline of 13 things we’re thankful for this year.

1) Diversity.  We tried to live up to our illustrious history of diversity and inclusion this year at the BBA.  From amicus briefs defending marriage equality and affirmative action to the Beacon Award, we reasserted our commitment to expanding fairness for all.  This year we released our Diversity and Inclusion Timeline highlighting key events in our history that helped shape our community. 

2) Taking it to the Top.  We started the year off right by advocating for trial court funding with the head of the executive branch, Governor Deval Patrick.  For the first time we sat down and spoke directly to Governor Patrick and his legal staff about this important issue. 

3) Walk to the Hill.  In late January, we proudly participated in the 14th annual Walk to the Hill with 650 lawyers.  Our members used their advocacy skills by speaking to legislators and staffers on the impact civil legal aid funding has in Massachusetts.  We  helped secure $13 million in civil legal aid funding for Fiscal Year 2014.  Please join us for Walk to the Hill 2014, scheduled for Thursday, January 30th.  We hope you’ll join us.  (More information here and here)

4) Protecting Attorney Ethics Consultations.  We were pleased that the SJC ruling reflected a lot of the same thinking as our amicus brief in RFF Family Partnership v. Burns & Levinson, by applying attorney-client privilege to a lawyer’s consultation with in-house ethics counsel.  This issue was an important one for all of our members who practice in law firms, large or small, and for their clients.  The ruling gives lawyers the requisite peace of mind to consult in-house ethics counsel to make sure they act in accordance with the state’s ethics and professional conduct guidelines.

5) Some Clarity on Decanting.  We sought guidance through an amicus brief in Richard Morse, Trustee v. Jonathan A. Kraft et al. This case addressed, for the first time in Massachusetts, a trustee’s power to transfer the assets of one irrevocable trust to another for the same class of beneficiaries. The brief argued in favor of this power, called “decanting,” and urged the court to recognize that it is inherently held by trustees.  The SJC ruled favorably with respect to Morse’s petition, but declined to recognize decanting as an inherent trustee power.

6) BBA Statewide Task Force.  In April, we created the Boston Bar Association Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.  Chaired by past-president J.D. Smeallie, the Task Force features 27 diverse leaders in the state’s legal community from law firms, in-house counsels, academia, the judiciary, legislative, and executive branches, and legal services organizations.  The Task Force is making significant progress in quantifying and assessing both the civil legal aid services currently provided in the state and the needs not being met.

7) Legal Services Discussion.  Jim Sandman, President of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) joined us at the BBA over the summer to talk about the current state of LSC funding, reinforcing the need for bi-partisan support and the importance of connecting with the business community. President Sandman emphasized that legal services is not a social safety net or a poverty relief program.  Legal services are necessary to ensure access to justice for all 

8) Defense of Marriage Equality.  This summer, we celebrated the Supreme Court’s rulings upholding marriage equality in the cases of U.S. v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry.  Reaffirming our longstanding advocacy efforts for marriage equality, we joined a coalition of other bar associations, civil and human rights groups, and public interest and legal services organizations that signed onto the briefs.  (Read the briefs here and here)

9) Amending the UCC.  On July 1st, Governor Patrick signed into law “An Act making amendments to the uniform commercial code covering general provisions, documents of title and secured transactions.”  We collaborated with the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Massachusetts Bankers Association to get this bill before the House and Senate for their final approval.  While this law didn’t make big news, it will remove needless obstacles that small businesses run into when trying to secure credit.

10) Paula Carey named Chief Justice of the Trial Court.  We cheered when Paula Carey, former Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court began her post as Chief Justice of the Trial Court this summer.  We look forward to working with her and Court Administrator Harry Spence as the trial court implements its strategic plan.   

11) Judicial Pay Raise.  At long last, the legislature passed a judicial pay raise – an essential step to continuing providing the high quality justice residents of Massachusetts expect and deserve.  Before this legislation, Massachusetts ranked 48th in the nation in judicial compensation. 

The $30,000 raise will take effect in two equal installments; the first increase will be effective January 1, 2014 and the second increase will be effective July 1, 2014. 

12) A Step in the Right Direction for Mandatory Minimum Sentences.  In August, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled a Justice Department proposal to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, something that the BBA continues to work on at the state level.  Repealing mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses is sensible, fiscally responsible, and more protective of public safety.  Repealing mandatory minimum sentences also returns to judges the discretion they need to dispense fair and effective justice.

13) Juvenile Justice.  This summer, the state enacted “An Act expanding juvenile jurisdiction.”  This law, raising the age of jurisdiction for juvenile courts from 17 to 18 years old, was unanimously supported by the BBA Council.  The change moved Massachusetts in line with the majority of other states and, according to researchers, will give minors a greater chance of becoming productive members of society.

2013 was a significant year.  Here’s looking ahead to a great 2014!  Happy holidays!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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A Backgrounder on Civil Legal Services Funding in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) 

MLAC was established in 1983 by the Legislature to provide funds for civil legal assistance to poor people throughout Massachusetts. It is governed by a board of directors approved by the SJC and distributes, in addition to IOLTA funds, state appropriated funds to legal service providers.  MLAC is the largest funder of civil legal aid programs in the Commonwealth.

MLAC’s revenue comes from the state budget, the IOLTA program and the Board of Bar Overseers dues add-on program.  The decline in Interest On Lawyers Trust Account (IOLTA) funds has resulted in a MLAC cutting grants to the legal aid programs it funds by 54%.

MLAC funds 16 legal aid programs that provide information, advice and representation to low-income people with critical, non-criminal problems.

Community Legal Aid Greater Boston Legal Services
Boston College Legal Assistance Bureau Community Legal Services and Counseling Center
MetroWest Legal Services Neighborhood Legal Services
Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts Merrimack Valley-North Shore Legal Services
South Coastal Counties Legal Services Center for Law and Education
Center for Public Representation Disability Law Center
Massachusetts Advocates for Children Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
National Consumer Law Center Prisoners’ Legal Services

MLAC funds three projects, which are run by the staff of legal services programs in local offices around the state:

  • Battered Women’s Legal Assistance Project
  • Disability Benefits Project
  • Medicare Advocacy Project

MLAC state funding: FY2013 $12 million; total grants for FY2013 are just over $16 million.

Interest On Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA)

The Massachusetts IOLTA program was created in 1985 by the Supreme Judicial Court.  IOLTA is not unique to Massachusetts.  The first IOLTA program was established in Florida in 1981. Since then, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted IOLTA programs.

In 1990, the SJC converted IOLTA from a voluntary program to a “comprehensive” program.  As a result, lawyers and law firms are required to establish interest-bearing accounts for client deposits.  These funds must be placed either in an account which pays interest to the client or in an IOLTA account. An IOLTA account is selected if the funds are relatively modest, or large amounts held by the lawyer for only a short period.

Each IOLTA deposit earns a very small amount of interest.  It is the money accumulated from pooled IOLTA accounts that allows the IOLTA committee to make its distributions to support law-related public service programs.  Over 200 banking institutions maintained an average of 14,000 IOLTA accounts across the state this year.

The Supreme Judicial Court limits the use of IOLTA to two purposes: 1) to provide civil legal services to low-income clients and 2) to improve the administration of justice.  The IOLTA committee distributes all IOLTA interest to three charitable entities that then use the IOLTA funds to make grants to local civil legal services programs:

  • Boston Bar Foundation (7%)
  • Massachusetts Bar Foundation (26%)
  • Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (67%)

IOLTA operates on a calendar year.  The very low currently available interest rates and a period of declining real estate transactions have caused a notable reduction in the revenue on which the IOLTA program depends.

  • In 2007, interest on IOLTA accounts totaled $31.8 million
  • In 2011, interest on IOLTA accounts totaled $7.5 million
  • In 2012, interest on IOLTA accounts totaled $6.9 million

Legal Services Corporation (LSC)

LSC is a private, non-profit corporation created by the United States Congress during the Nixon administration and is funded through the congressional appropriations process.  Although LSC is the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income people in the United States it provides only about 15% of the funding for legal aid programs in Massachusetts.

LSC provides funding to independent local legal services programs through a competitive grant process and currently funds 134 independent legal aid organizations.

LSC distributes federal funding for civil legal aid and is governed by federal law.  LSC imposes restrictions on recipients of any LSC grant funds and not just on LSC money but on all of a particular program’s funds.  These restrictions prohibit LSC-funded organizations from engaging in lobbying, advocacy,, general impact work and from representing certain otherwise eligible low-income people.

In Massachusetts, the 4 LSC grantees are:

  • Massachusetts Justice Project, Inc.
  • Merrimack Valley Legal Services, Inc.
  • South Coastal Counties Legal Services
  • Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association

LSC funding for FY13: $4,778,860

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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Legal Services Corporation Needs a Lifeline

This week BBA President Lisa Goodheart sent a letter to Senator John Kerry and the rest of the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation requesting support and protection for the funding of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC).  As written about before on Issue Spot, support for legal services is a core part of the BBA’s mission and is a vital service to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Funding for civil legal assistance in Massachusetts is a partnership between federal, state and local governments as well as private attorneys and foundations.  The current economic climate has led to a substantial drop in resources for LSC programs due to both a 50 percent decrease in IOLTA revenue over the past two years and budgetary constraints among state and private contributors. All this comes at a time of unprecedented need – more than 1 in 5 Americans now qualify for legal assistance.

Legal services funding is not merely a spending issue.  LSC-funded programs in Massachusetts provide critical legal services to individuals who need it most, including victims of domestic violence, veterans returning from combat, those coping with the after-effects of natural disasters, persons with disabilities, and individuals undergoing foreclosures and evictions.  LSC funds four programs in Massachusetts – the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, the Massachusetts Justice Project, Merrimack Valley North Shore Legal Services and the New Center for Legal Advocacy – all of whom have already absorbed massive cuts to their budgets and staff.

Why is LSC funding in jeopardy now?  It all goes back to August when Congress, reaching a last-minute compromise on the debt ceiling crisis, established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.  The Committee is made up of 12 lawmakers – including Massachusetts Senator John Kerry – who have been tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in budget savings by November 23rd.  If the Committee is unable to come up with the necessary savings, the difference will be made up by automatic spending cuts, divided evenly among domestic and defense programs.

Senator John Kerry and, in general, the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation have been supportive of legal services.  They understand that legal aid attorneys provide meaningful representation to people who have no place else to turn.  Despite the presence in Congress of legal aid advocates who appreciate the importance of legal services, the fiscal situation before the Committee is daunting.  Funding cuts threaten to adversely impact our neighbors, friends, families, and communities.  We need to do everything we can to ensure that the citizens of Massachusetts are able to receive the legal assistance they need.

 

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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LSC Fighting Off Federal Cuts

Legal services providers face another yet another blow – following last week’s announcement that the new House Appropriations Committee has proposed a $70 million cut to the Legal Services Corporation (“LSC”) for Fiscal Year 2011.  This immediate cut would be catastrophic to the delivery of legal services in Massachusetts because it would mean an 18% reduction in LSC’s annual funding.  (Because we are already half way through the current fiscal year, legal services providers tell us this actually translates to a 36% cut.)

There have already been serious reductions in other funding sources upon which LSC-funded programs also depend – especially Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (“IOLTA”). As we noted in a previous post, record low interest rates and reductions in the number of real estate transactions have resulted in dwindling IOLTA revenues.

What the House Appropriations Committee proposed last week is in contrast to what President Obama’s unveiled his budget this week.  For Fiscal Year 2012, President Obama actually proposed an increase of $30 million for LSC.

LSC provides grants to independent local programs and currently funds 137 local programs, serving every county and Congressional district in the nation. LSC distributes 97% of the funds it receives to these programs.  Massachusetts has four LSC-funded programs: the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, the Massachusetts Justice Project, Merrimack Valley North Shore Legal Services and the New Center for Legal Advocacy.

If this mid-year cut goes through, the entire legal aid delivery system in Massachusetts will suffer.  LSC has a big budget battle ahead of it. The BBA has already tried to do its part.

Today (February 17th), BBA President Don Frederico sent every member of the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation a letter urging no cuts in LSC funding. We will also join the American Bar Association in D.C. this April to lobby for funding for Fiscal Year 2012.  We urge Congress to adequately fund legal services to provide access to justice for poor people in the United States.

N.B. Some organizations in Massachusetts, such as Greater Boston Legal Services, do not receive LSC funding, and they still need our help.  That budget battle – to hold onto level funding – has just begun in the state Legislature.  Please be sure to join us next week at Walk to the Hill.  The event has been rescheduled for Tuesday, February 22nd at 11:00 AM in the Great Hall at the State House.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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