Foley Hoag Partner Leads BBA’s Effort to Expand Civil Legal Aid, Cites Report Showing that Funding Legal Aid Saves the Commonwealth and its Residents Money

October 18, 2014

Foley Hoag Partner and Boston Bar Association President Julia Huston announced last week the release of a major report detailing severe shortfalls in funding for legal aid agencies. The 37 page report, issued by the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, calls for a $30 million boost in the annual appropriation from the state. The report states that investing in civil legal aid will ultimately save the government money by reducing the need for more expensive social services such as housing the homeless, providing foster care for children, and delivering health care services to those that cannot afford it.

The 18-month BBA study revealed that Massachusetts legal aid agencies are forced to turn away a huge percentage of cases – as many as 80% of family matters and 74% of unemployment cases – because of inadequate funding. This means that more than 54,000 low-income Massachusetts residents were turned away in a single year, even though they were eligible for legal services. These individuals were forced to navigate the court system on their own, even in such high-stakes matters as avoiding a wrongful eviction or obtaining a restraining order against a batterer. Of the 54,000+ cases turned away in Massachusetts last year, over 33,000 were in the areas of housing and family law.

The report outlined the economic benefit of access to legal aid by demonstrating that each dollar spent on civil legal aid in three critical areas would produce savings and other benefits to the state and its people. In domestic violence cases, the investment would be fully matched by savings in state medical costs, in addition to protecting victims and helping to break a pattern of abuse. In housing matters, the return would be $2.69 for every $1 invested. And in the area of federal benefits, the economy would grow by as much as $5 with each additional $1 put toward legal aid.

“The situation in Massachusetts is dire, with more than 60% of those who should have access to civil legal aid turned away," said Huston. "This is a travesty for those affected, who are the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged in our society, and yet cannot afford legal representation to seek justice in our civil courts.” Huston is a longtime advocate for access to civil legal aid, having served as Chair of the Equal Justice Coalition and as President of Greater Boston Legal Services before becoming BBA President.

While Huston believes that the funding of civil legal aid is a public responsibility, she points out that the private sector is also doing its part to provide these critical services. In addition to state funding, legal agencies receive support from the private sector, including lawyers and law firms who make direct financial contributions to their local programs. In addition, as detailed in the report, Massachusetts attorneys contribute significant pro bono hours to represent low-income clients.

The BBA report stated that the estimated value of the pro bono hours contributed through four programs in in the Greater Boston area in 2013 was $17.6 million, which was significantly larger than the $12 million state legislative appropriation for that year. The report explored ways to increase private support for civil legal services, including through increased pro bono representation, as well as an increased legislative appropriation.

Foley Hoag has a long history of supporting legal services for the poor. Claire Laporte, Partner and Coordinator of the firm’s Pro Bono program, stated, “As lawyers, we believe that it is important to give back to our community by ensuring that the basic legal needs of low-income citizens are met. Foley Hoag commits more than 25,000 hours of lawyer time per year to pro bono cases. We will continue this work, but private law firms do not have the resources to close the massive funding gap that the BBA has studied in its report. Our public institutions must do more to help meet the critical legal needs of the most vulnerable people in our community.”

The American Lawyer ranked Foley Hoag’s pro bono program 14th among the country’s top 200 law firms in 2014. The firm represents low-income families and individuals in domestic violence, civil and voting rights, disability rights, health care, immigration and political asylum and taxation cases.

“The BBA has long supported and advocated for civil legal aid funding, and the task force report is the next step in that effort,” said Huston. “This report will be the catalyst to making a more aggressive case to state policymakers that greater support for legal aid is not only the right thing to do, but also makes sense from a fiscal and economic standpoint.”

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