Legal resources for low-income and elderly residents in jeopardy [Op-Ed]

To survive, legal aid orgs must have diverse funding sources

In an op-ed written for the Boston Globe in October, former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Margaret Marshall observed that impoverished families threatened with wrongful eviction, battered women seeking restraining orders and senior citizens who are improperly denied Medicare benefits need the help of lawyers just as much as those accused of crimes. “Imagine yourself as the head of a hardworking but poor family facing an unjustifiable foreclosure,” she wrote. “What do you think of your chances of preventing such an action without a lawyer?” The former Chief Justice called on all Massachusetts residents, in particular all lawyers, to contribute to those organizations that provide free legal representation for their low-income and elderly clients. As she wrote, “Justice depends on it.”

Here on Cape Cod and the Islands, South Coastal Counties Legal Services (SCCLS) is the primary resource for low-income and elderly residents facing just these sorts of critical legal problems. We applaud the former Chief Justice for championing legal aid’s cause and echo her call for private support. But to survive, legal aid organizations must have diverse funding sources that include individual, corporate, foundation, and government support.

Right now, civil legal aid programs are in jeopardy on the Cape and across the State due to economic realities that are beyond the programs’ control. The problem is that rock-bottom interest rates have nearly wiped out a major source of revenue for civil legal aid - IOLTA revenue. Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts funding (or IOLTA revenue) comes from the interest on clients’ money held in trust by their attorneys and is traditionally civil legal aid’s largest funding source. In the 2012 fiscal year, IOLTA is expected to bring in less than $5 million, a whopping 78 percent decline from 2008. Further, the State appropriation for legal aid programs has been unable to make up this difference. In fact, it fell from $11 million in FY2009 to $9.5 million in FY10, and has stayed mostly level since then.

In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) issues grants to legal aid programs with the funds from State and IOLTA resources. The unprecedented revenue decreases have cut the size of MLAC grants and forced local legal aid programs to make drastic reductions, severely impacting the number of clients they can help. As an example, in 2010 SCCLS employed 29 lawyers and operated six community law offices in Hyannis, Plymouth, Brockton, Fall River, New Bedford and Taunton. In 2012, SCCLS has just 19 lawyers working in three law offices (Hyannis, Brockton and Fall River). Due to funding cuts SCCLS laid-off staff and closed the Plymouth, New Bedford and Taunton law offices. Private donations, including those from corporations and foundations, have not been enough to improve these circumstances.

Hoping to regain capacity to help those most in need, MLAC and the legal aid community requested a $14.5 million State appropriation for FY 2013. However, the House budget provides $12.0 million for civil legal aid, as recommended by Gov. Patrick, and the Senate budget recommended $11.5 million. On Beacon Hill this week or next, a joint committee of the House and Senate will determine the final MLAC appropriation for the next year. For all the reasons expressed, we urge adoption of the higher House budget figure of $12.0 million.

Matthew J. Bresette, Esq.
Paul G. Farrell, Esq.
Stuart Graham, Esq.
Arthur L. Pressman, Esq.

*Tax deductible contributions to South Coastal Counties Legal Services may be made on-line at www.sccls.org or mailed to SCCLS at 22 Bedford Street, P.O. Box 2507, Fall River, MA 02722. Attorneys who can volunteer pro bono (i.e. uncompensated) time to represent SCCLS clients, or who are willing to receive referrals from SCCLS, are invited to contact Private Attorney Involvement Coordinator Julie O’Hanley at [email protected] or call 1-800-244-9023.

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