Mass. SJC chief justice calls for an increase in state funding for civil legal aid for low-income residents

The pandemic has spurred low-income people to seek legal aid for unemployment, domestic violence, housing and immigration cases. But there’s not nearly enough funding for legal aid organizations to meet the exploding demand, says Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd.

So Budd is calling for more state funding to address the growing equity concerns.

“Our legal system is dedicated to the principle of providing equal justice for all. But too often we fall short of that ideal, because many people still lack the resources that they need to present their cases in the courts,” Budd said Thursday in remarks delivered during the 24th annual Talk to the Hill event organized by the Equal Justice coalition, a collaboration between the Boston and Massachusetts bar associations and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

“Our legal aid organizations, who work tirelessly, simply don’t have enough funding to provide counsel for everyone who comes to them seeking help,” Budd said. “Nearly half of the people who seek assistance do not get it.”

Budd and advocates called for $49 million in increased state funding in fiscal year 2024 for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the largest funding source for civil legal aid organizations in the state. The body was established by the Legislature in 1983 to ensure low-income residents have representation in noncriminal matters including housing, employment, health care, immigration, and domestic violence issues such as restraining orders.

Over the last three fiscal years, civil legal aid cases involving unemployment insurance have quadrupled, and domestic violence, housing and immigration have all grown by 20 percent or more, Budd said.

“The need is clear,” Budd said.

Budd referred to a recent nationwide poll conducted by the National Center for State Courts which found that nearly half of all respondents questioned whether state courts deliver equal justice for all.

“The responses from people of color were particularly concerning,” said Budd. “Approximately 60 percent of Black and Hispanic respondents said that the phrase ‘provide equal justice to all’ does not describe state courts.”

Lynne M. Parker, MLAC’s executive director, said legal aid organizations “provide an important and essential service to our state’s most vulnerable residents, many of whom are still acutely feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

People and families with incomes at or below 125 percent of the poverty level — $37,500 per year for a family of four — qualify for civil legal aid, Parker said.

“We know that the pandemic continues to have a lasting effect on people with low incomes,” Parker said. “We also know that people of color have been disproportionately harmed and continue to suffer greater health and economic consequences.”

Increased state funding for legal aid in recent years has “enabled legal aid organizations to reduce the number of eligible people who are turned away,” Parker said.

The turn-away rate decreased 47 percent last year, Parker said, adding that “it clearly demonstrates that increased funding is having a meaningful impact.”

Still, many who are eligible are being turned away, Parker said.

“Legal aid organizations must still make very difficult choices about whom they can help and whom they cannot due to limited resources,” Parker said.

Tonya Alanez can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.

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