The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

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Cuts To Legal Aid Strain Services For Poor

January 30, 2014

Three years ago, Charlene Julce’s family faced eviction from their home in Malden, and a legal aid lawyer helped them fight off foreclosure. On Thursday, Julce will tell state legislators that many more people in the same situation need legal representation and aren’t getting it.

“We never could have afforded a lawyer,” Julce said. “We were lucky.” 

But Julce said people shouldn’t have to be lucky to get help. She’ll speak at the annual Walk to the Hill, where hundreds of lawyers from across the state descend on Beacon Hill. This year attorneys plan to tell lawmakers that thousands of the state's most vulnerable residents are being evicted or having their homes foreclosed because they can't afford a lawyer. Funding for legal aid has declined drastically in the last few years, and lawyers say the state isn't doing enough to fill the gap in services. 

As a result of low interest rates, legal aid services have lost more than $14 million in annual funds. That's on top of state cuts.

Like many states, Massachusetts pays for legal aid by collecting the interest earned on money attorneys hold temporarily for their clients. At any given time that usually amounts to about a billion dollars -- so the interest used to add up to a lot: in 2008, about $17 million. But with interest rates being so low for so long, that same source of funding will bring in an estimated $2.8 million in fiscal 2014, according to Lonnie Powers of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. 

"Consequently we've lost almost 40 percent of the legal aid lawyers in Massachusetts,” he said.  
Powers said lawyers now turn away more than half of the low income people who come to them for help with civil cases like foreclosures, evictions, unpaid unemployment benefits, denial of health care coverage, or student expulsions from school. Without legal representation, he said people are much more likely to lose cases.
"Until you need a lawyer and can't get one, you don't realize how devastating it is to have to go to court by yourself when even lawyers are a little intimidated to represent themselves,” Powers said.
Powers' organization, private bar associations and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court are asking the state for a $17 million dollar appropriation in the budget for fiscal 2014 to shore up funding for legal aid. Gov. Deval Patrick's proposal recommends the legislature approve $14 million.
Powers said with that amount legal aid centers will still have to lay off staff, and if the state lets the situation continue, low income people in Massachusetts will stop believing they're equal before the law.
"It is a foundation principal of this country that we have a right to be treated fairly not just by the government but by our fellow citizens,” he said. “And if any time we let that right be diluted and people believe that's an illusion and they're not going to be treated fairly, we lose something that is extremely valuable to all of us."
Powers said taxpayers will also lose money: when low income people get the legal help they need, they avoid situations like homelessness that, according to Powers, end up costing the state millions of dollars.

This piece was written for WGBH in partnership with the New England Center for Investigative Journalism.

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