BOSTON (SHNS) – The state’s largest funder of civil legal aid services is asking lawmakers to increase state funding by 20 percent in the fiscal 2022 budget to help fund services for low-income residents facing legal issues in areas like housing, employment, education, and government benefits.
Lawmakers and representatives from several of the state’s civil legal aid corporations gathered on Zoom Tuesday to press for the $6 million increase in the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation line item (0321-1600). Second Division Chair Rep. Ruth Balser said the Legislature “is deeply committed” to civil legal aid.
“There is no justice if people without means cannot protect themselves in our courts … and MLAC and the services they provide always help people who face unemployment issues, housing eviction issues, health care access issues, immigration issues, [and] domestic violence issues,” the Newton Democrat said during a virtual briefing. “I do have to say that while we always deeply appreciate the work of our friends in the legal services, nothing has been like the challenge they’ve faced during this pandemic.”
And those working in the field say the challenges brought on by the pandemic are immense for the organizations providing legal services and the people who seek them. MLAC Executive Director Lynne Parker said she remains concerned that the number of people who qualify for and are seeking out civil legal services will continue to rise as a result of the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, with limited available resources, we still are looking at legal aid programs having to make very difficult choices about who they can help,” she said during the briefing. “And more than 50 percent of those who qualify for legal aid must still be turned away.”
Parker says the increased funding over the past fiscal years “really does make a difference” for the many people across the state who are seeking legal assistance.
The corporation received $29 million in fiscal 2021, $24 million in the fiscal 2020 budget, and seeks $35 million in the fiscal 2022 general appropriations act. Gov. Charlie Baker proposed level funding the line item at the FY21 amount in his fiscal 2022 proposal (H 1) that now sits before the House Ways and Means Committee.
Jay McManus is executive director of the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, an organization that provides legal services for low-income children and youth. The majority of funding the center receives from MLAC is dedicated to individual representation of children of all ages in the Northeast and the Greater Boston area.
The pandemic has forced the center’s 10 lawyers, three support staff, and volunteers to find a more innovative approach to advocacy as providing legal services is “much more time consuming.”
“It’s become more complex to actually serve children on the education front,” he said. “The big issues for these kids and poor communities that we are seeing focuses on access to remote education, access to the technology that drives that remote learning. We’ve made the education work a top priority because of the problems that families and children have been experiencing on that front since March of last year.”
Over at Community Legal Aid’s Family Law Unit, attorneys mostly focus on litigants dealing with domestic violence, divorces, child custody, restraining orders, and child support. CLA staff attorney Irit Tau-Webber said she is seeing an increase in need from applicants who are cohabiting with abusive partners.
“They don’t have any relief. Everyone is at home. Their spouses might be working at home during the pandemic or unemployed because of the pandemic,” she said. “What might have been a tolerable relationship, may have reached a crisis point because everyone being on top of each other in a small space with perhaps financial concerns and tensions boiling, and we work with them to establish a safe and effective and private way to communicate.”
In addition, Tau-Webber said CLA has seen an increase in need from applicants who are dealing with cases that would have been straightforward during ordinary times, but because of the pandemic, “they might have a really hard time navigating this system.”
“The supports that might be in place to help them access justice in the courthouses are not as available because of staggered work cases and the closure of various resources that would ordinarily be available in the courthouses,” she said. “And so something as simple as filing for divorce might become just completely an impossible endeavor for some of our applicants.”
And on the housing front, Northeast Legal Aid’s Housing Unit Supervising Attorney Mike Weinhold said “COVID has changed everything with the way that we practice in the housing unit.”
In normal times, housing lawyers would meet people in-person at courthouses but because of public health measures created to curb the spread of the virus, the unit had to revamp their intake system.
“We’ve had to make all our forms fillable and able to work remotely and we have a relatively big unit that we need to communicate everything now remote. The court hearings have totally changed. They’re all by Zoom now,” he said. “The legal issues are complicated because the landscape is changing all the time with different protections and moratoriums and rules for RAFT. And the cases just generally, they take longer.”