Access to Justice Update – October 19, 2014

It has been a milestone week for setting access to justice goals in the Commonwealth. Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants has delivered his inaugural State of the Judiciary address to a packed Massachusetts Bar Association Bench-Bar Symposium assembled in the Great Hall at the Adams Courthouse. His top priorities include an ambitious set of access goals for the courts. At the same time, the Boston Bar Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid has issued its long-awaited report calling on the legislature to take dramatic steps to increase funding for legal aid so that two out of three eligible clients seeking assistance are no longer turned away at the door. Reading these plans together (and it takes some reading), there’s a lot to do for members of the access to justice community.

Chief Justice Gants Sets a High Bar for Access Improvements

Chief Justice Gants announced four new initiatives which he hoped would be achieved collaboratively with the legislature, the executive branch, and the bar. The initiatives include sentence reform (he calls for best practices in every trial department with criminal jurisdiction to ensure “individualized, evidence-based sentences”), developing a more flexible menu of options for litigants to choose among in civil actions (competing with private arbitration, keeping the courts in the business of resolving civil disputes and continuing to create a common law that adapts and evolves) and improving the quality of jury voir dire.

The access to justice initiatives include:

Making available to all litigants “a one-page, two-sided information sheet that will help self-representing litigants find the resources that are already available to them.” The resources will include the legal resources and advice that are available, such as lawyer-for-the-day, voluntary mediation services, limited assistance representation through a bar referral program and court service centers.

Two court service centers are already in operation, four more will be added this year and by 2017 there should be one in each of the fifteen largest courthouses, accessible to half of all litigants in the Commonwealth.

Giving every resident of Massachusetts access to a Housing Court by working with the legislature to extend the Housing Court’s jurisdiction statewide.

Urging the legislature to carefully consider the findings and recommendations of the Boston Bar Association Statewide Task Force (see below).

Also emphasizing access to justice and collaboration for important improvements to be accomplished were Paula Carey, Chief Justice of the Trial Court, and Harry Spence, Trial Court Administrator. These three leaders have forged a strong partnership. As Chief Justice Carey said, they have a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to bring the Judicial Branch forward, collectively and individually. The full remarks can be read by following a link found at http://www.mass.gov/courts/court-info/sjc/

Task Force Says Legal Aid Needs $30 Million More, and Will Pay $86 Million Dividend

The Boston Bar Association Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts has released its report “Investing in Justice: A Roadmap to Cost-Effective Funding of Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.” http://www.bostonbar.org/docs/default-document-library/statewide-task-force-to-expand-civil-legal-aid-in-ma—investing-in-justice.pdf.

The Report was front-page news in the Boston Globe, which was particularly struck by data developed for the Task Force that showed the core civil legal aid programs turning away 64% of the people who actually apply for legal assistance because of serious legal problems even though the applicants are financially eligible for free legal assistance. In addition, many eligible individuals do not even apply. As a result, the courts are forced to operate an adversarial system in which as many as 80% of the litigants are without legal assistance. A survey of judges revealed that 60% of the judges felt that the absence of legal representation “negatively impacted the court’s ability to ensure equal justice to unrepresented litigants.”

In a key recommendation, the Task Force calls for an annual increase of $30 million in MLAC funding (perhaps phased in at $10 million per year over three years). Through the work of three prestigious consulting firms, the Report predicts that the increase in appropriation would not only dramatically increase access to justice but also save the state some $34.5 million in other expenditures (such as shelter for families made homeless by eviction) and bring an additional $51.3 million in economic benefits to the state.

The Task Force is composed of not only lawyers from every segment of the bar but also legislators, members of the executive branch, business leaders, academics, community spokespeople and clients. Although gathered by a Boston Bar initiative, it was truly statewide in its membership. It conducted surveys and gathered all available information in order to understand the depth and difficulty of access to justice deficiencies.

Commission Planning Sunset, Sunrise; Next Meeting December 4

The 2010 SJC order establishing the Access to Justice Commission included a “sunset” provision. The current Commission completes its five year life in February 2015, by which time the Court will have reviewed the Commission’s record and decided whether to create a new Commission for a new term.

The next meeting of the current Commission will take place Thursday, December 4, at 3:00 PM in the Fifth Floor Conference Room at the Social Law Library in the Adams Courthouse in Boston. All are welcome.

LSC Funding: A 10 Week Continuing Resolution

As the October 1 start of a new federal fiscal year loomed, the Congress enacted a ten week continuing resolution funding the government until December 11 at essentially current levels. The Legal Services Corporation share of this omnibus bill is $365 million. After the mid–term elections have determined the control of the House and Senate for the next two years the lame-duck Congress will return and take the next step, which might be another short-term continuing resolution (passing the buck to the new Congress that takes office in January), an omnibus continuing resolution for the rest of the fiscal year or dealing with the pending appropriations bills for the various parts of the federal government. Since LSC grants for calendar 2015 will be based on the next piece of legislation, it is impossible to tell at this juncture what those grants will be.

SJC Pro Bono Committee Makes Pro Bono Awards October 21

On Tuesday, October 21, the SJC’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services will hold an awards ceremony to honor the recipients of the 2014 Adams Pro Bono Publico Awards. The Awards will be presented by Chief Justice Ralph Gants in a ceremony that starts at 4:00 pm in the SJC courtroom in the John Adams Courthouse. A reception will follow the ceremony.

Receiving awards are:

Hon, Patrick Fox (ret.) of Sterling, MA,

Valquiria Castiglione Ribeiro, Fall River,

Seth Orkand, WilmerHale, Boston, and

a special student award to 2014 B.U. graduate Elizabeth McIntyre.

Also receiving certificates will be this year’s lawyers, law firms and law students that participated in the Court’s Pro Bono Honor Roll Program. If you plan to attend, notify carol.lev@sjc.state.ma.us.

NLADA Puts Access to Justice Research Online, Available to All

The National Legal Aid and Defender Association has used a grant from the Public Welfare Foundation to create www.LegalAidResearch.org. A press release describes the new research site as “a research database providing free access to research reports and other documents about evidence-based practices and research results on civil legal aid.” More than 250 different studies are now “ready to browse”.

Legal Advocacy and Health Care Dollars: Partnerships With Potential

Also from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association is the offer of a webinar explaining a funding opportunity for civil legal aid programs to collaborate with health centers funded by the US Department of Health & Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). Legal aid is now included in the range of “enabling services” that a health center can provide as part of its team to address the social determinants of health. In other words, health centers can include funding for legal aid as part of their service plan because legal aid can be a vital part of assuring the health of health center patients.

The Webinar is scheduled for Thursday, October 30th at 2:00 PM (ET). Registration is required. Go to https://nlada.webex.com/mw0401l/mywebex/default.do?siteurl=nlada

Medical-Legal Partnership|Boston: Annual Conference October 28

To prepare to understand the opportunities in working with health centers, nothing could be better than attending the fifth annual medical-legal conference on October 28.  It features a day of probing discussion and information about the ways that interdisciplinary practice — lawyers and medical personnel working together — can bring healthier, more productive lives to low-income individuals who seek help from health centers. The conference is being held at the Federal Reserve bank of Boston, from 8:15 AM to 4:30 PM. Register at www.mlpboston.org.