To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel :
Navigating the American legal system without a lawyer is a risky, if not foolhardy, proposition. The paying clients who come to our doors everyday prove the point. Lawyers make a difference in the result achieved. Not surprisingly, that aphorism is also true for those who cannot afford a lawyer.
Facilitating access to justice for all - regardless of one's ability to pay for an attorney - is integral to the mission of the Boston Bar Association. For the last several years, we have worked in collaboration with the Equal Justice Coalition, a diverse group of more than 180 organizations and individuals committed to ensuring that poor people throughout Massachusetts have access to the courts when they have a civil legal problem.
We are delighted that so many of our members announced plans to participate in the March 7 'Walk to the Hill' lobbying day for legal aid that is being coordinated by the Equal Justice Coalition. That's just the start; we need to continue our advocacy with our state legislators throughout the budget process. Although we were heartened to see that House 1, the governor's proposed spending plan for the fiscal year starting on July 1, 2006, contained a modest increase in funding for civil legal aid, we need to ask the legislature for a very substantial increase.
Why is adequate funding for civil legal services more important today than ever before? Look around. A recent study done by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center notes that the gap between upper and lower income families has grown more in Massachusetts than in 47 of the 50 states. According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, Boston's homeless population increased nine percent between 2004 and 2005. The same positive economic factors that have yielded increases in state revenues have exacerbated the housing crisis for the poor.
In addition to the threat of homelessness, poor people need legal assistance relating to domestic violence, consumer fraud, unlawful denial of benefits, elder abuse, and a whole host of other issues related to poverty. In Massachusetts, over 700,000 people are eligible for civil legal aid. The same population typically faces at least one legal problem each year. The reality is that because the resources of legal services providers are stretched so thin, more than half of these people will be turned away. According to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, there is just one legal aid attorney for every 3,507 low income clients in Massachusetts. By contrast, the ratio of attorneys serving the general population in the state is one for every 136 people.
And who are the poor? Bob Sable, the executive director of Greater Boston Legal Services, gives us an example: a single mother who has two kids and works 40 hours a week at minimum wage, for a total weekly salary of $270. That is less than the federal poverty threshold of $309 a week for a family of three. Now let us assume that this woman is facing a wrongful eviction action. Without a lawyer, she and her children are likely facing a life of traveling from shelter to shelter, which is likely to generate social costs for years to come. So providing her with a lawyer is a smart investment. Providing her with a lawyer also provides a benefit to our courts which are already overburdened with pro se litigants.
To put a human face on the issue of access to justice, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation earlier this year prepared some actual case studies for presentation to legislators. Because space is limited, I share with you just two examples:
When one woman struggling to make ends meet saw her rental subsidy drop from $325 to only $67 per month, she went to her local housing authority, which insisted that the amount was accurate. It took a legal services lawyer to determine that in fact she was entitled to $400 per month, and to get the housing authority to reimburse the woman for more than $10,000 in lost subsidies.
A desperately poor cancer survivor with one lung who needed a constant supply of oxygen to stay alive was the victim of a glitch in the Social Security system that marked her as deceased. The mistake resulted in a cut off of her Medicare coverage. Caught up in a web of red tape, she got nowhere until a legal aid paralegal made calls to Social Security, Medicare, and the Department of Medical Assistance. The problem was ultimately solved.
While proud of the panoply of pro bono programs the Boston Bar Association sponsors to assist poor people in need, it is also essential that we communicate to our legislators that volunteers can never be a substitute for adequate public funding of civil legal aid. We are similarly proud of the work of our philanthropic affiliate, the Boston Bar Foundation, which in 2005 awarded more than $1.2 million in grants. But private donations are not an acceptable substitute either.
Whether you call, write or visit your legislators to make the case for increased public funding, please remember that there is no more important or more gratifying legal work you can do than advocating for access to justice for all.
Edwin P. (Ned) Leibensperger