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 avariation 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