How can we ensure effective assistance for everyone with an essential civil legal need?
In 2016, Massachusetts was awarded a grant to develop a strategic action plan for improving access to justice throughout the Commonwealth. The Access to Justice Commission, the courts, legal aid providers, bar associations, law schools, social service organizations, litigants, community groups, and other stakeholders have collaborated in this effort. We assessed the resources currently available to assist residents who cannot afford a lawyer for their essential legal needs – such as those involving housing, consumer debt, and family law – and developed a statewide Strategic Action Plan (SAP) for addressing gaps in those services.
The grant was provided through the Justice for All project, which was generously supported by the Public Welfare Foundation and housed at the National Center for State Courts. The Justice for All project was established to implement a 2015 resolution by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators, which endorsed the goal of providing 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs. Twenty five states applied for grants, and Massachusetts was one of seven that received them.
The project was managed by the following team:
- Honorable Ralph D. Gants, Chief Justice, Supreme Judicial Court, Co-Chair, Access to Justice Commission
- Honorable Geraldine S. Hines, Justice (ret.), Supreme Judicial Court, Former Co-Chair, Access to Justice Commission
- Honorable Dina E. Fein, First Justice, Hampden County Housing Court, Special Advisor for Access to Justice Initiatives for the Trial Court Department
- Susan M. Finegan, Esq., Chair, Pro Bono Committee, Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky & Popeo, PC; Co-Chair, Access to Justice Commission
- Jacquelynne J. Bowman, Esq., Executive Director, Greater Boston Legal Services
- Russell Engler, Esq., Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs, New England Law, Boston
- Laura Gal, Esq., Staff Attorney, Community Legal Aid; Consultant, Access to Justice Commission
- Maura Kelly, Esq., Senior Manager for Access to Justice, Executive Office of the Trial Court
- Chip Phinney, Esq., Deputy Legal Counsel, Supreme Judicial Court
- Marilyn Wellington, Esq., Executive Director, Board of Bar Examiners
Marc Lauritsen of Capstone Practice Systems, a Massachusetts lawyer and educator, was engaged to facilitate the project.
The project culminated in December 2017 with the publication of the Massachusetts Justice For All Strategic Action Plan. An implementation effort will ensue in 2018.
Development of the Massachusetts SAP took place over the 2017 calendar year. In the first quarter, the Project Management Team met to plan how they would: assess the present justice landscape; create a vision for a system capable of delivering effective assistance to meet essential civil legal needs in Massachusetts; and develop a roadmap to get from today’s reality to the envisioned network of legal and non-legal assistance necessary to provide access to justice for all in our Commonwealth. After exploring several possible approaches, the Team determined that three substantive areas of law were disproportionately affected by limited access to justice: housing, consumer debt, and family law. In order to address needs in these areas and, at the same time, develop systems that could assist individuals in all areas of need, the Team established four working groups: Housing Working Group, Consumer Debt Working Group, Family Law Working Group, and Ecosystem Working Group. The Ecosystem Working Group was tasked with identifying obstacles common to many or all substantive areas of need and developing pathways to responsive assistance.
During 2017, project consultant Marc Lauritsen and working group members held four regional meetings to gather input from the public. These were in Springfield, Andover, Boston, and Dartmouth. Each began with a general open session, and continued with breakouts to discuss issues in the contexts of consumer debt, housing, and family law.
A statewide conference, held at Harvard Law School on June 9th, convened an invited group reflecting a broad spectrum of stakeholders from across the Commonwealth. In addition to the substantive areas mentioned above, the group addressed cross-cutting questions about the overall access-to-justice ecosystem and its infrastructure. The conference goals were to spur actions and shape strategies for achieving 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs.
A second, smaller conference was held in October at Suffolk University Law School. The goal of this session was to hear outlines from each of the four working groups and to provide feedback prior to drafting the final product of the project, the Strategic Action Plan, in December. A final SAP was submitted to the Justice for All project on December 22, 2017.
The Next Steps
Completion of the SAP triggered Massachusetts’ eligibility to apply for additional funding from the Justice for All project in 2018. This second round of support is aimed at facilitating one-year pilots of ideas articulated in state SAPs. A Request for Proposals was issued in early January, and Massachusetts submitted a proposal for two pilots on January 31, 2018. Awards are expected to be announced in March.
For more information
Read the ‘Justice for All 2017 Mid-Project Report‘ that summarizes the June 9th conference and events leading up to it.
Read the ‘Massachusetts Justice For All Strategic Action Plan‘ (Dec. 22, 2017) that outlines the progress of the JFA Project and the goals it seeks to implement moving forward.