Like many Commissions, we hold meetings, have committees and issue reports. And while all of that can sound just a bit stuffy and distant our work affects – and improves – the lives of real people. It’s not always easy to put a face on those people, but read on and we’ll tell some stories to try to bring a bit of life to our work.
Goodness is where you find it. Often you have to look for it; rarely does it call attention to itself.
Access to Justice Fellow Bancroft “Bats” Wheeler is a perfect example. During a distinguished career at several Boston law firms, he specialized in trusts and estates for wealthy people while also handling numerous pro bono cases in the Probate and Family Court. But, after retiring a few years ago, he chanced upon an opportunity to continue his service to others. At an event, he met Betsy Soule, Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services, who told him about the many low-income clients at MetroWest who were desperately in need of wills, trusts and related end-of-life documents. She encouraged Bats to work with MetroWest as an “Access to Justice Fellow,” which enables senior attorneys and judges to apply their skills and experience in support of increasing access to justice at a legal service organization, nonprofit, or the courts.
In 2013, Bats started volunteering as a Fellow at MetroWest. Instead of making his clients come into MetroWest’s offices – like it had always been done – he offered to make house calls because so many of them were elderly, disabled or both. Bats has since made house calls to hundreds of clients in the 41 cities and towns that MetroWest serves in Massachusetts. His program affectionately became known as “Wills On Wheels,” and he is beloved by everyone he has helped.
Bats has continued to serve MetroWest beyond his Fellowship year, continuing to volunteer as virtually all of the Fellows do. To date, over 70 Fellows in the program, which is now run by Lawyers Clearinghouse in conjunction with the Access to Justice Commission, have contributed an incredible 45,000 hours of pro bono work. That is goodness multiplied.
Innovative Legal Aid Funding
One Friday afternoon, a young couple with two small children came to the waiting room of MetroWest Legal Services. The family had spent the prior four nights sleeping in a car after a state worker had dismissed their request for emergency shelter without ever meeting with them. The MetroWest Legal Services staff attorney immediately went to work to obtain the family shelter so they did not have to spend another night sleeping in a car.
The family was one of the lucky ones. Nearly 950,000 Massachusetts residents–about 18%–make less than the $30,000 in family income that qualifies them for a free lawyer for civil problems like housing, family law, or immigration. And yet, more than half of those who seek assistance, and are financially eligible, get turned away due to inadequate funding for civil legal aid organizations.
The A2J Commission continues to tackle this serious funding gap for civil legal services by thinking creatively and strategically. One solution – the voluntary “add-on opt-out” fee to a lawyer’s yearly attorney registration – has already generated $7.5 million for civil legal aid for low income people.
The concept, which was modeled after similar programs in several states, gives attorneys an opportunity to voluntarily pay an extra $51 fee when they register each year with the entire amount directed entirely to civil legal aid. The initiative was spearheaded by former A2J Commission Co-Chairs David Rosenberg and Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, working alongside several A2J Commissioners, and was authorized by the Supreme Judicial Court in June 2010.
The $7.5 million raised to date, as well as a $1 million increase the legislature allocated to civil legal aid last year, allowed civil legal aid organizations to open an estimated 1,359 additional cases and serve thousands more additional clients and their families in need. The A2J Commission will continue to fight for legal aid funding because everyone deserves access to justice and no one should ever sleep in a car.
Thanks to the A2J Commission, low income, self-represented litigants make their way to the Appeals Court in Boston’s John Adams Courthouse every Wednesday seeking free “same day” help from volunteer attorneys through the Civil Appellate Pro Bono Program. They come from all over Massachusetts, oftentimes traveling hours on a bus or train with plastic bags of case paperwork in hand. For many, this is their first experience with an attorney, and they are looking for both professional advice and an attorney to take on their appeal pro bono.
The Civil Appellate Pro Bono Program, which is the first of its kind in Massachusetts, was initiated in 2013 when then-Associate Justice Ralph D. Gants, now Chief Justice, tasked a committee of the A2J Commission with assessing the state’s need for appellate pro bono services. The committee learned that the Appeals Court in Massachusetts was fielding questions from at least 40 to 50 self-represented litigants each day, and that its docket was loaded with pending appeals involving at least one self-represented litigant. Now 181 volunteer attorneys have staffed weekly clinics, and offer individual appellate representation where warranted.
The Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association (VLP) and the law firm of Mintz Levin agreed to manage the program, opening the clinic’s doors for an initial pilot phase at Boston’s Edward W. Brooke Court Service Center. In December 2015, the clinic went statewide, moving to a dedicated space in the Appeals Court – thanks to the urging of Chief Justice Scott Kafker of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, great assistance from Joseph Stanton, the Clerk of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, and participation by several other law firms and legal services organizations.
379 individuals served to date
181 volunteer attorneys
64 merits review panel cases