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ACCESS TO JUSTICE COMMISSION: UPDATES  February 27, 2014

 

EXPANDING THE HOUSING COURT TO THE ENTIRE STATE

The Judicial Branch has proposed to the Legislature that the Housing Court be expanded to cover the entire state.  At the present time, only 80% of the state has access to a housing court.  Since the areas without housing court tend to have larger populations, only 70% of the state's population has the benefits of the specialized judges and the housing court specialists.  In the press release announcing the proposal, Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey is quoted as saying, "The expansion offers all parties involved in housing issues -- landlords, tenants, property owners, and code enforcers -- the benefits of the efficiency and expertise of Housing Court adjudication in a broad range of cases."  The expansion proposal is based on the recommendation of the Access to Justice Commission.  Commission co-chair, SJC Associate Justice Ralph D. Gants, said "All residents of the Commonwealth, regardless of where they live, should have the opportunity to have their housing case heard by a Housing Court."  A briefing paper on the proposal is available here.

 COURT SEEKS COMMENT ON PUTTING "ACCESS TO JUSTICE" ON THE BAR EXAM

The Supreme Judicial Court has published for comment the proposal of the Access to Justice Commission that "access to justice" be added to the bar exam as a topic.  The proposal is supported by the Board of Bar Examiners, the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Boston Bar Association.  Comments are due by March 24.  http://www.mass.gov/courts/sjc/proposed-amendment-bbe-rules.html.  The new topic would include substantive areas of law in which there is a high incidence of unmet legal needs; ethical issues that arise when not all litigants are fully represented; and due process doctrines related to fair hearings.  

 BILEK AND MANNINA APPOINTED TO ACCESS TO JUSTICE COMMISSION

The Supreme Judicial Court has appointed Mary Lu Bilek and Jonathan Mannina as the newest members of the Access to Justice Commission.  Bilek is the dean of the University of Massachusetts School of Law, located in Dartmouth, MA.  Mannina is Executive Director of Community Legal Aid, the legal services program that serves the five western counties of Massachusetts.  Their terms expire in one year because the Commission is subject to a "sunset" review by the Court during the coming year.

 NEXT COMMISSION MEETING: MARCH 27

The next meeting of the Access to Justice Commission will take place at 3:00 on Thursday, March 27, in the Fifth Floor Conference Room of the Social Law Library, located in the Adams Courthouse in Boston.  The meeting is open to the public.



ACCESS TO JUSTICE UPDATE   January 23, 2014

 

ACCESS TO JUSTICE COMMISSION MEETING THURSDAY JANUARY 30 AT 3:00

The next Commission meeting takes place at 3:00 on Thursday, January 30, in the Fifth Floor Conference Room of the Social Law Library in the Adams Courthouse.  Among possible agenda items: Adding Access to Justice to the Bar Exam, Expanding Housing Court Jurisdiction Statewide, a Proposed Executive Order on Administrative Agency Due Process, new technology for finding the best legal resource for a prospective client and for placing pro bono cases using a statewide website, and a report by the Advocacy Coordination Committee on increasing systemic advocacy in Massachusetts.

Make it an "access to justice" day!  Take part in the Walk to the Hill at the Statehouse from 11:00 to 1:00, talk with your legislators and then drop by the Courthouse for the Commission meeting at 3:00.

 

TRIAL COURT SEEKING ACCESS TO JUSTICE COORDINATOR

The Trial Court is seeking to hire an "Access to Justice Coordinator."  Don't delay if this job interests you; the posting closes January 30.  The Special Advisor for Access to Justice, Hon. Dina Fein, says "We're looking for someone great."

The job description puts the successful candidate at the heart of access to justice initiatives in the exciting environment of Massachusetts courts today.  " Working within the Department of Support Services in the Office of Court Management, the Access to Justice Coordinator is responsible for supporting the work of the Special Advisor for Access to Justice and coordinating access to justice activities throughout the Trial Court.  Working with the Special Advisor, under the supervision of the Director of Support Services, the Access to Justice Coordinator identifies unmet access to justice needs within the Trial Court, and develops projects, programs, and procedures to meet those needs.  The Access to Justice Coordinator works collaboratively with the Office of Court Interpreter Services, the Trial Court Law Libraries, and various Trial Court committees including the Language Access Advisory Committee, the Court Services Center Committee, and the Website Committee."

The full posting can be found at https://careers-trialcourtsofmass.icims.com/jobs/1697/access-to-justice-manager/job.


APPROPRIATIONS NEWS: LSC/S $25 MILLION FOR 2014

In the final analysis, LSC came out better than many feared in the appropriation decisions for 2014.  Congress and the President did away with the sequester and passed an omnibus appropriations bill for the rest of the year (through September 30) granting an increase of $25 million to LSC, for a total of $365 million.  Keeping that figure in perspective, the LSC appropriation in 1981 was $321.3 million and in 1995 was $415 million, and there are more than 47 million people living below the poverty line today compared to about 30 million in 1981.

In 2013, Congress cut LSC by about the same amount, and all of that cut came out of services by local ("basic field") programs.  This year's increase, however, did not give that cut back.  Instead, the Inspector General got an increase of $448,000, LSC management took $2,208,000 more and discretionary grants for technology improvements (+ $292,000) and a new Pro Bono Innovation grant program (+$2,500,000) were carved out of the increase.  As a result, LSC grants in Massachusetts will increase by a net of $280,000 rather than the $373,600 that might have been expected.

 

APPROPRIATIONS NEWS: GOVERNOR PROPOSES $14 MILLION FOR FY 2015

The Governor's Budget for FY2015 was released on January 22 and included $14 million for MLAC.  This is an increase of $1 million over FY2014.  While a clear step in the right direction, the Equal Justice Coalition is seeking a $17 million appropriation to make a bigger dent in the under-funding of the civil legal aid delivery system.

 

WALK TO THE HILL JANUARY 30

The Fifteenth Annual Walk to the Hill, sponsored by the Equal Justice Coalition, takes place a week from today at 11:00 at the Statehouse.  Hundreds of lawyers will join together in the Great Hall to listen to speakers explain the need for increased funding for MLAC and then visit their legislators to urge support for increased funding.

 

REPORT RECOMMENDS PHILANTHROPIC CAMPAIGN FOR LEGAL AID

Working with a grant from the Public Welfare Foundation and the American Bar Association, the Commission's Revenue Enhancement Committee has conducted a study of the feasibility of raising significant funds for civil legal aid from philanthropic donors.  Until now, most fundraising efforts by legal services supporters have focused primarily on attorneys and law firms.  But the Feasibility Report, prepared by Community Philanthropy Consultants, concludes that a well-organized campaign could result in millions of new dollars of support for legal aid.

At the Commission meeting December 5, the Committee reported that it would organize a new corporation (since then named the Massachusetts Equal Justice Fund) to mount the recommended campaign.  The Preliminary Report of the Committee is available at the Commission's website, www.massaccesstojustice.org.

Click here for the Preliminary Report.

 

PLANNING COMMITTEE PROGRESS REPORT

The Commission's Special Planning Committee presented its "Progress Report" at the December 5 Commission meeting and received approval to distribute the report for comment and discussion.  The Report is available for review at the Commission's website, www.massaccesstojustice.org.

The Progress Report builds on the Committee's Second Interim Report issued two years ago.  It describes positive steps taken as well as work remaining to be done to improve the delivery of legal services in Massachusetts.  It suggests that the delivery "system" could do a better job of making decisions and implementing important change and proposes that the system take on five "projects" and two "dialogues" through which to develop more effective decision-making and change implementing procedures.  The five projects concern increasing systemic advocacy, improved use of technology, better planning of resource use and development of volunteer resources (a focus on private attorney involvement), adoption of best practices for statewide screening and intake, and more meaningful evaluation of the results of grant efforts.   The two dialogues involve the possibility that a unified, statewide governance structure would be more effective at planning for and implementing needed changes and an exploration of the complex issues of equity in the distribution of resources and services within the state.

Click here for the Progress Report


RIGHT TO COUNSEL IN CONTESTED CHILD CUSTODY CASES

The Commission has approved creation of a Committee to pursue a Right to Counsel Pilot Project in the area of Contested Child Custody Proceedings in Probate and Family Court.  The pilot projects (in as many counties as proves feasible) will arrange for pro bono counsel to represent selected parents in contested child custody cases.  The parents selected would be ones whose opposing party had counsel or whose cases involved domestic violence.  The Committee will include Commissioners, members of the Task Force on Expanding the Civil Right to Counsel and other interested individuals.   Interested individuals should contact Commission Consultant Gerry Singsen at gerrysings@aol.com.

 

NORTHEASTERN CIVIL RIGHT TO COUNSEL PANEL JANUARY 29

"Overcoming the Notion that a Civil Right to Counsel is Unrealistic" is the topic of a Roundtable discussion at Northeastern Law School from 12:00 to 1:30 on January 29.  The lead speaker is Debra Gardner, Legal Director for the Public Justice Center.  Panelists include John Pollock of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, Jacqui Bowman from GBLS, Jayne Tyrrell, IOLTA Executive Director and co-chair of the Task Force on Expanding the Civil Right to Counsel, and Mike Greco of KL Gates and the ABA.

 

UPDATED HISTORIES OF LEGAL AID: HOUSEMAN/PERLE AND JOHNSON

Two histories of civil legal services have come out this winter.  They cover much the same territory but couldn't be much more different.

Alan Houseman and Linda Perle have published a CLASP report entitled "Civil Legal Aid in the United States: An Update for 2013."  It tells the story of legal aid, with a focus on the basic facts and controversies, in a brisk 64 pages.  An essential overview for any access to justice library, it's available for downloading at http://www.clasp.org/resources-and-publications/publication-1/CIVIL-LEGAL-AID-IN-THE-UNITED-STATES-3.pdf

Earl Johnson, Jr., a retired California judge, was the second Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity Legal Services Program in the late 1960s.  He wrote the definitive social and political history of the federal program's early years, concluding with the passage of the Legal Services Corporation Act in 1974 ("Justice and Reform: The Formative Years of the O.E.O. Legal Services Program," Russell Sage 1974).  Now he has produced  "To Establish Justice for All: The Past and Future of Civil Legal Aid in the United States" (Praeger 2013).  This comprehensive, three volume set is rich in personality and perspective.  It begins with the German Legal Aid Society in 1876 in New York and concludes in modern times.  It is available through amazon.com for the modest price of $184.30 ( $144.99 for the Kindle Edition).  Perhaps a library near you will buy it.

END OF UPDATE JANUARY 23 2014

 
STRATEGIES, OBJECTIVES AND GOALS FOR 2013

 

A comprehensive statement of the Commission's strategies, objectives and goals for 2013 is available.  Organized around the seven missions of the Commission, the statement lists 45 objectives and measures by which to determine whether the objective has been achieved.
 
 
BAR EXAM PROPOSAL: MAKE "ACCESS TO JUSTICE" A TOPIC
 
Acting on the recommendation of a committee composed of representatives of the Commission and both the Massachusetts and Boston 'Bar Associations, the Commission has unanimously adopted a proposal that "Access to Justice" be added to the topics on which the bar will examine applicants.  The Commission concluded that including access issues would increase the preparation students obtained during law school on those issues.  The proposal also suggests that the Board of Bar Examiners consider reducing the total list of topics covered by the bar in order to reflect the realities of a modern practice of law. 
 
 
ADDRESS OF JUSTICE GANTS DURING WALK TO THE HILL
JANUARY 26, 2012

          When you meet today with Senators and members of the House of Representatives, and they ask, "How can you justify asking for $5 million in additional MLAC funding this fiscal year, an increase of more than one-third?", I invite you to answer, "How could we justify asking for less?" 

          The free lunch provided by income from IOLTA accounts is over.  No longer can we rely on IOLTA to generate $31 million per year for civil legal services, as it did in calendar year 2007, more than half of all funding for civil legal services.  Now we can rely on IOLTA, maybe, to provide $7 million per year.  Who has borne the brunt of the nearly 80 percent cut in IOLTA?  Those least able to bear it: the poor of Massachusetts.  The number of those in need have not dwindled; it has grown.  The number of individuals and families eligible for civil legal aid in Massachusetts grew by 11 percent last year alone.  The legal problems of the poor have not dwindled; they, too, have grown. More persons are losing their homes to foreclosure and their apartments to eviction; the anger and frustration arising from persistent unemployment are being vented on abused spouses and children; bleak job prospects mean that alimony and child support cannot be afforded and often must be modified.  

          The bar has done its part to diminish the IOLTA gap.  Since 2009, contributions from attorneys and law firms to legal service programs funded by MLAC have increased by 72 percent, from $3.2 million in fiscal year 2008  to $5.5 million in fiscal year 2011.    The Supreme Judicial Court has added a voluntary $51 fee to the annual attorney registration fee, and $1.1 million was raised last year from the many who agreed to pay that fee.  But the private bar cannot be expected to bridge the gap alone; the state must do its part.

          Why should the Legislature approve $5 million in additional funds to help bridge the IOLTA gap? 

  • Because legal services ensure that the promise of "justice for all" is more than a promise – that the rights granted to all who reside in this Commonwealth are enjoyed by those who may not know their rights or be able to advocate competently on their own behalf. 
  • Because legal services are a sound investment; the legal services programs that received $9.5 million in MLAC funds in FY 2010 saved Massachusetts taxpayers $14.6 million that year by sparing many from homelessness and domestic violence, and brought into the Commonwealth nearly $30.6 million in additional federal benefits. 
  • Because legal services spare our courts the time, expense, and burden of trying to ensure justice for litigants who do not know the law and sometimes lack the skills needed to articulate the facts.  I am among those judges who have silently proclaimed, "Hallelujah," when I learned that a legal services attorney has come into a difficult and complex civil case to represent an indigent litigant against a represented party.
  • Because legal services provide the legal infrastructure, training, advice, and community education that help the vast majority of Massachusetts residents, many more than the poor they represent, to understand, enforce, and defend their rights.  

But ultimately the questions you must ask of our elected  representatives are a 

variation of the questions asked by Hillel at the beginning of the modern era: What kind of a Commonwealth would we be if we did not protect the rights of those in need by providing them with adequate legal services?   And if we do not protect the rights of those in need, who will?  And if not now, when?

                            Ralph D. Gants, Associate Justice, Supreme Judicial Court




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