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 $11.9 million in 2019, but not near pre-recession figures. Moreover, as a result of the 2020  pandemic and the consequent lowering of interest rates, it is expected that IOLTA revenue will dramatically decrease this year. 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. $6.0 million in FY2020).
  • 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 $21 million in FY2019.
  • The unmet need for legal services remains great, and is expected to increase given the impact of the current pandemic related recession on low-income populations.
  • According to recent estimates, 861,043 people in Massachusetts — 12.9% of the state population — live below 125% of the federal poverty level ($32,750 annually for a family of four), making them eligible for civil legal aid.
  • As a result of inadequate funding and significant need, legal aid programs in Massachusetts have been forced to turn away the majority of people who sought assistance.  Compounding this issue is the simultaneous increase in need for civil legal services while funding streams are expected to decrease from sources like IOLTA, resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant decrease in interest rates.

Solutions:

  • 139 current and former Fellows of the Access to Justice Fellows program have provided over 110,000 hours of pro bono service to 70 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 July 2020, almost 300 attorneys from 20 different law firms have helped over 750 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 also collaborated on two-one year pilots, one in housing and other in consumer debt, designed to test ideas proposed in the strategic action plan, through a grant from the Public Welfare Foundation/Kresge Foundation and Open Society Foundations. This strategic action plan continues as an important guide to the Commission.
  • 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.