A2j Problems and Solutions

 

Image 1 compressedProblems:

  • One of the major funding streams for legal aid in the state, Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA), decreased significantly from $31.8 million in 2007 to $6.7 million in 2016, in large part due to very low interest rates and the recession.  Funding from the federal Legal Services Corporation during the same period fluctuated but ended the period essentially unchanged.   State appropriations for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) increased from $9.5 million in FY 2010 to $18 million in FY 2017.  Even in 2007, funding was not sufficient to meet the need.  Taken together, IOLTA, LSC and state appropriations are much lower today than ten years ago.  Even if MLAC receives the $23 million it seeks for FY 2018, it will not bridge the gap.
  • Moreover, from 2008 to 2013, the number of residents eligible to receive legal aid increased by approximately 25%.
  • Currently, almost 1 million people in Massachusetts live below 125% of the federal poverty level ($30,750 a year for a family of four) – nearly 15% of the overall state population – making them eligible for civil legal aid.
  • The decreased funding, and increased need, resulted in legal aid programs turning away 64% of income-eligible individuals who sought assistance in 2013.

Solutions:

  • Since its inception, the over 70 current and former Fellows of the Access to Justice Fellows program have provided 45,000 hours of pro bono service to over 40 different non-profit organizations, courts and other public interest entities. The Fellows program is run by Lawyers Clearinghouse.
  • With the Appeals Court Clerk’s Office receiving phone calls every day from approximately 40-50 self-represented litigants, the Commission initiated a pilot Appellate Civil Pro Bono Program in Suffolk County. The Volunteer Lawyers Project, which led the project, was so successful that it expanded statewide in December of 2015.  As of November 2016, 88 pro bono attorneys have volunteered with the project, serving 201 individuals. 
  • 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.