THE STATE HOUSE Calls to increase funding for legal aid services are being made on Beacon Hill. With more and more low-income residents being turned away from free legal services due to a lack of funding, the legal community worries justice may not be served.
There’s a paradox in Massachusetts’ legal system: as the economy has sputtered over the last four years, the amount of money available for civil legal aid has dropped sharply. At the same time, because of the economy, the demand for legal aid has spiked, with low-income citizens facing increased legal problems including eviction and foreclosure, to name a couple.
“This is a need. This is something that people who are underrepresented need,” said Remon Jourdan. He understands that need first-hand. The Randolph resident is a quadriplegic and was in danger last year of losing his personal care attendants after his doctor failed to complete the necessary paperwork so they could be paid. Jourdan turned to a lawyer from Greater Boston Legal Services.
“I’m not in a situation where I could just hire a lawyer. So, I thought I had no other options available to me, so, when I was given this opportunity, to have some type of help, I just jumped on it,” Jourdan said.
Nancy Lorenz is Jourdan’s attorney from Greater Boston Legal Services.
“We get people calling who have been trying on their own to resolve it for months, sometimes,” Lorenz said. “Like their MassHealth got shut off, they don’t know why. They call, they can’t get through on their phone, they’re not able to go to the doctor, they’re not able to fill their prescription, and then, they get to us, and we fix it.”
Fixing it does cost money, and lately that money has been scarce. The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, or MLAC, has seen its major source of funding shrink 79 percent since Fiscal Year 2008. As a result, there’s been an average decrease by about one-third in the number of attorneys working in civil legal aid programs.
MLAC estimates that three out of five residents with legal problems must be turned away, and that concerns the state’s legal community, including Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ralph Gants.
“The greatest fear of a judge is to have a very difficult case, involving an important issue, and to have a litigant be unrepresented, especially against a very well-qualified attorney on the other side,” Gants said.
Gants joined hundreds of other attorneys at the State House Thursday to call on lawmakers to increase the state’s share of legal aid by $5 million.
In his budget recommendation released earlier this week, Gov. Deval Patrick called for an increase of $2.5 million. Gants calls that a good start. He said his colleagues in the SJC recognize the importance of access to justice.
“We only do our job if we’re providing justice for each and every person who is before us,” Gants said. “Just like the schools need to educate every student regardless of language difficulty or regardless of means, so too do our courts need to provide a fair quality of justice regardless of language ability, regardless of means.”
Boston Bar Association President Lisa Goodheart is urging lawmakers to make more of an investment in legal aid.
“MLAC must rely on the state appropriation to continue to provide essential services to the most vulnerable among us,” Goodheart said.
Jourdan agrees. That’s why he’s telling his story. Fortunately, he was able to get the essential legal services he needed last year, when he needed them.
“I wasn’t expecting the turnout. I didn’t expect this case to go through,” Jourdan said. “And I was told by a lot of people that usually, these cases do not work out for the better. And so, when it worked out for me, I was overjoyed. You know this was huge for me.”
This post was updated with the Morning Edition feature version.