Boston University Statehouse Program
This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
BOSTON — Two lawyers’ groups are urging state legislators to boost funding of civil legal aid programs by $5 million in fiscal 2019 to help meet an increasing demand.
“If you’re losing your kids, losing your house, losing your health care — the only place you can turn is civil legal aid if you cannot afford an attorney,” said Jacquelynne Bowman, director of Greater Boston Legal Services at a legislative briefing.
Bowman’s group is making the pitch to lawmakers in collaboration with the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp.
If a defendant in a criminal trial can’t afford a lawyer, they are guaranteed the right to counsel by a public defender. In a civil case, there is no such guarantee, explained Bowman, and the role of civil legal aid programs is to help low-income people navigate the civil legal system. But she said civil legal aid programs are currently unable to accommodate the demand for services.
Around 45,000 people, or 65 percent of eligible people looking for help, are turned away from civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts each year, according to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. The programs are most commonly used in housing court cases, Executive Director Lonnie Powers said.
Advocates at the briefing said that the need for help from civil legal aid programs is increasing due to changing federal immigration policies, relocation of families impacted by Hurricane Maria and the opioid epidemic.
Massachusetts Legal Assistance estimates that an additional $5 million in funding would be able to increase staffing enough to take on 3,000 more cases — enough to help 7,700 more people.
In addition to providing legal counsel, legal assistance groups provide other services like training and guidance for pro bono attorneys that are volunteering for civil cases outside of their specialty, and helping individuals understand their legal rights, according to Bowman.
Additionally, Powers argued that funding civil legal aid programs has economic benefits to the state. An Massachusetts Legal Assistance analysis concluded that the state saw nearly $60,000 in benefits and savings in 2017 through its group’s aid. The savings, the report said, come largely from reductions in the collection of public benefits, use of emergency housing, and other social services costs.
Bowman said that maintaining current funding levels for services would not maintain the current state of the system, but make it worse.
“When you’re rowing a boat up a river and you stop rowing, you don’t stay in the same place — you move backwards,” she said.