Legal aid for lowest earners has been on the rise. But chief justice says Mass. needs more
The top state judge in Massachusetts wants lawmakers to make more funding available for low-income Bay Staters to get legal representation in civil matters, warning that recent investments still have not done enough to ensure access for those in need.
Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd warned that legal aid organizations are facing a surge in demand in recent years, exposing a clear need for additional state support.
"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 they need to present their cases in the courts," Budd said at an annual event highlighting the civil legal aid system. "And our legal aid organizations, who work tirelessly, simply do not have enough funding to provide counsel for everyone who comes to them seeking help."
Lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker agreed to a substantial increase in recent years in funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which is the largest conduit for civil legal aid groups here to receive state dollars. MLAC's state budget line item was funded at $21 million in the fiscal year 2019 state budget and boosted to $41 million in the FY23 budget.
To qualify for civil legal aid, people and families must earn 125 percent or less of the federal poverty level, or $34,688 per year for a family of four, according to MLAC. More than 96,000 people in Massachusetts benefited from civil legal aid in FY22, the group said.
Budd said the injection of additional state dollars has helped cut the percentage of eligible recipients that civil legal aid organizations reject from 57 percent to 47 percent. "But still," she added, "that means that nearly half of the people who seek assistance do not get it."
In her remarks, Budd did not say specifically how much more money she wants Beacon Hill to direct to civil legal aid.
An SJC spokesperson said "it is the practice of the court not to make a formal recommendation with respect to the budgets of organizations not affiliated with the judiciary," though the court noted in a press release about Thursday's event that attorneys and advocates called for providing MLAC with $49 million — an increase of $8 million — in the FY24 state budget.