A2j Problems and Solutions

 

Image 1 compressedProblems:

  • One of the major funding streams for legal aid in the Commonwealth, Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA), decreased significantly from $31.8 million in 2007 to a low of $4.5 million in 2014, in large part due to very low interest rates and the recession. Over the past several years, the numbers have slowly increased to $8.3 million in 2018. Nonetheless, a return to pre-recession figures is not within sight. Meanwhile, funding for Massachusetts civil legal services programs from the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has remained virtually flat for the last decade ($5.5 million in FY2009 vs. $5.7 million in FY2019), and the President’s budgets have proposed eliminating LSC entirely.¹
  • Fortunately, the Massachusetts Legislature has stepped in to increase aid for civil legal services significantly over the last several years, raising the state appropriation for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) to $24 million for FY2020 from $18 million in FY2018.
  • Yet despite this increase in state aid, the appropriation was still $2 million less than what MLAC had requested, and the unmet need for legal services remains great.
  • According to recent estimates, 888,000 people in Massachusetts — 13.4% of the state population — live below 125% of the federal poverty level ($32,188 annually for a family of four), making them eligible for civil legal aid.
  • Due to lack of funding, legal aid programs in Massachusetts are forced to turn away 57 percent of residents—nearly 30,000 people each year—who seek help.

Solutions:

  • 139 current and former Fellows of the Access to Justice Fellows program have provided over 100,000 hours of pro bono service to 78 different non-profit organizations, courts and other public interest entities. The Fellows program is run by Lawyers Clearinghouse with support from the Access to Justice Commission.
  • The Commission initiated a pilot Appellate Civil Pro Bono Program in Suffolk County in 2014 to provide free counsel to some of the approximately 40-50 self-represented litigants who call the Appeals Court Clerk’s Office every day. The Volunteer Lawyers Project, which led the project with Mintz, other law firms, the clerks’ offices, and other legal service entities, was so successful that it expanded statewide in December of 2015. As of October 2019, over 300 attorneys from 20 different law firms have helped over 700 low-income litigants navigate the civil appellate process.
  • One of the judicial members of the Second Commission chaired the Supreme Judicial Court’s Committee to Study the Code of Judicial Conduct (Code Committee). As part of its comprehensive review of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which went into effect on January 1, 2016, the Code Committee made several innovative recommendations regarding a judge’s role with respect to self-represented litigants. For example, Rule 2.6(A) expressly permits a judge to make reasonable efforts to facilitate the ability of self-represented litigants to be heard fairly, and a Comment provides examples of permissible accommodations. The Supreme Judicial Court adopted the new Code, and it went into effect on January 1, 2016 (Supreme Judicial Court Rule 3:09: Code of Judicial Conduct).
  • The Commission advocated for the creation of a voluntary annual $51 “access to justice” attorney registration fee. Since the implementation of the fee, over $1 million has been generated each year, which is distributed to legal services organizations serving low income clients with civil legal needs.
  • The Commission received one of seven Public Welfare Foundation/Justice for All Grants to develop a strategic action plan for improving access to justice throughout the commonwealth. The Commission has since hosted the inaugural statewide Justice for All Conference, which brought together leaders in legal services, private practice, and the government and judiciary to form targeted working groups addressing key areas such as consumer debt, family law, housing law, and the overall legal help ecosystem.
  • The Commission conducted an extensive examination of access to justice initiatives that might enhance the experience of self-represented litigants in the Housing Court, and undertook intensive efforts to expand the Court and ensure litigants would have access to knowledgeable judges and specialized initiatives such as the Tenancy Preservation Program. In 2017, a committee comprised of Commissioners and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute successfully advocated for statewide expansion of the Housing Court in the Massachusetts budget for fiscal year 2018.
  • The Commission is one of two commissions nationally to take a leadership role in analyzing whether Federal funds – other than those from the Legal Services Corporation – can be tapped to meet the funding gap for civil legal aid. Since 2015, the Commission has specifically researched whether the recent and significant increase in Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) monies the state receives – from $9.462 million to $40.87 million – can be applied to civil legal aid. The Commission spearheaded the allocation of an additional $8.2 million in funding for civil legal aid for victims of crime over the next two years from VOCA funds.

¹ See Legal Services Corporation: Background and Funding, Congressional Research Service (Feb. 2, 2010), at 12, https://www.everycrsreport.com/files/20100202_RL34016_0a6fc07754a4b30c71439b29b406c1423a25a195.pdf; Legal Services Corporation, Massachusetts State Profile, https://www.lsc.gov/grants-grantee-resources/our-grantees/massachusetts-state-profile.