MASSACHUSETTS ACCESS TO JUSTICE COMMISSION UPDATE – October 6, 2020

Thanks to so many of you who expressed condolences on the tragic passing of Chief Justice Gants.  We will remember him for his dedication to access to justice, here and beyond.  We continue to mourn the loss of Chief Justice Gants as we move forward collectively with the work that was so important to him.

We share some news and provide updates below.

Update on the MA ATJ Commission COVID-19 Task Force

We are exceptionally grateful to the numerous Commissioners and volunteers who dedicated themselves to the Commission’s COVID-19 Task Force over these past many months.  Commission Task Force members quickly stepped up and collaborated to address key issues such as accessing remote courts; ensuring the flow of information to self-represented litigants; and coordinating pandemic-related pro bono efforts statewide. 

In an effort to streamline efforts in this “new normal,” this incredible collaboration will continue, but through the work of existing Commission committees: the Family Law Committee; Housing Committee; Consumer Debt Committee; and the Ecosystem Committee.   Co-chairs of these committees continue to meet as a modified COVID-19 Task Force to ensure that key cross-over issues impacting court-users during the pandemic are addressed. In addition, the Task Force pro bono committee is now a sub-committee of the Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services.

Funding for Legal Aid

The global pandemic has created a health crisis as well as exacerbated existing systemic racial and economic inequalities.  We now also approach a crisis in civil justice.  In a compelling opinion in Commonwealth Magazine, Lynne Parker, Executive Director, Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and Susan Finegan, Co-Chair, Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and Partner, Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky & Popeo, describe the upcoming crisis in civil legal aid and urge the legislature to provide adequate funding to meet this overwhelming demand for legal assistance.  You can read the opinion here.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh also provides a persuasive opinion in Commonwealth Magazine on the need for a right to counsel for tenants who will face eviction once the eviction moratorium expires on October 17, 2020.  In Boston alone, Mayor Walsh predicts 15,000 households will have a hard time paying rent when the moratorium is lifted.  You can read his piece here.  Members of the Commission are actively engaged in working with stakeholders throughout the Commonwealth to address this pressing issue.

Focus on Racial Equality and Justice

One of the Commission’s priorities is to advocate for and prioritize racial equality and justice in our civil legal system to ensure that equality under the law is an enduring reality for all.  As part of this important focus, the Commission is pleased to be one of several co-sponsors of the Boston Bar Association’s Amplifying Unheard Voices series. This series seeks to highlight and amplify underrepresented perspectives of attorneys, clients and communities that engage with the legal system regularly, and to move towards more equitable representation of and opportunities for these communities.  The August 19th program focusing on the Black, male perspective was exceptionally well received and can be viewed here.  The second discussion in this series will focus on amplifying the Black, female perspective in a discussion moderated by April English, Chief of Organization Development & Diversity at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and will be held on October 19th.  You can register here.

Future panels in this series are presently expected to highlight additional perspectives such as:

  • Black Trans Attorneys, Organizers & Clients
  • Voices from Behind the Wall: Presently & Previously Incarcerated Individuals
  • Black Law Students
  • Court User Experience

Update on the Massachusetts Legal Resource Finder

We are pleased to share that the Massachusetts Legal Resource Finder, was listed as one of ten nationwide legal assistance portals that fit the Pew Charitable Trust framework for an effective portal.  Key elements of legal assistance portals include these four components: enables users to ask questions about a legal issue; interactively refines their requests; learns about their options; and connects them with relevant resources that can help. You can read more about the essential elements of legal assistance portals in the Pew’s fact sheet here.

MA Access to Justice Fellows Program Kick-Off

Since 2012, the Access to Justice Fellows Program has connected over 150 senior and retired attorneys and judges with meaningful pro bono projects on behalf of nonprofits, legal services organizations, and the courts. To date, Fellows have contributed over 100,000 hours of pro bono service, working on matters related to environmental conservation, immigration, criminal justice reform, child welfare, veterans’ issues, the mentorship of new lawyers, and more. Now entering its ninth year, the Fellows Program will mark the commencement of the 2020-2021 Fellows session and welcome the newest class of 15 Fellows with a virtual kick-off celebration on October 27 from 5-6. Speakers: Hon. Cynthia J. Cohen (Ret.), 2017-2018 Fellow and Former Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court and Susan Finegan, Fellows Program Co-founder and Chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission RSVP: https://forms.gle/i8Bn8sdNYHSPn1rD6

MA Access to Justice October 26th Commission Meeting

The next Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission meeting is scheduled for October 26th from 3-5 pm.  The meeting will be virtual and we will share information on how to sign up to receive a zoom link in a future email.  We look forward to connecting with you then.