Massachusetts legal aid advocates seek $10 million boost in state aid

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PITTSFIELD — Legal aid advocates say a $30 million boost in state aid would greatly increase the commonwealth's impoverished chances of getting proper representation in divorce cases, custody battles, foreclosures and other civil matters.

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. wants the Legislature to boost its fiscal 2017 appropriation to $27 million, up from the current $17 million, with an additional $10 million in requests expected for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Formed by the Legislature 33 years ago, MLAC financially supports 14 legal aid groups across the state, dispersing money allocated by the state and money from the Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts.

Citing a Boston Bar Association task force study, MLAC Executive Director Lonnie Powers defended the 63 percent funding increase in a recent interview with The Eagle.

"We're turning away 64 percent of clients who get to the front door seeking legal aid," he said.

The MLAC's lobbying effort for more money is starting to pay off as several dozen state representatives — including all for Berkshire lawmakers — have signed on to an amendment supporting the $10 million hike for the new fiscal year starting July 1, according to legal aid advocates.

Powers was joined in the interview by Community Legal Aid Executive Director Jonathan Mannina and Janis Broderick, executive director for the Elizabeth Freeman Center in Pittsfield.

Community Legal Aid serves all of Western Massachusetts and Worcester County, with about half of the Berkshire County cases originating from Pittsfield, according to Mannina. The Freeman Center provides programs, services to help families — primarily women and their children — deal with domestic violence, rape and sexual assault.

"There's a real connection between violence and poverty," Broderick said. "We have Community Legal Aid on speed dial."

Mannina added, "We look at ourselves as the legal arm of social services."

Community Legal Aid has an operating budget of $8.4 million, nearly half funded by MLAC, according to Mannina. He noted that in calender year 2015, his staff of 50 lawyers provided direct legal assistance to some 6,000 households, 600 in Berkshire County — half coming from Pittsfield.

The majority of cases involved housing, domestic relations and benefits such as disabilities, unemployment and welfare.

Powers said that of the 900,000 Massachusetts men, women and children eligible for legal aid, only 200 lawyers total devote themselves full time to legal aid, with dozens more in private practice providing pro bono service when time allows.

A significant funding boost for legal aid is also a long-term investment for Massachusetts taxpayers, according to the MLAC. The funding group reports for every dollar spent on legal aid, $2 to $5 is returned to the commonwealth coffers in terms of less money spent on emergency housing, health care, foster care, law enforcement and state-funded public assistance.

Given that the cases are time-consuming, Powers said legal aid lawyers haven't seen a pay hike in years while their workload has increased.

"We have one third fewer lawyers working for legal aid than in 2008," he said, referring to the year U.S. economy tanked.

While the Great Recession has receded, the financial aftershock continues for most of the state's less fortunate from the Berkshires to Cape Cod, the officials said.

Mannina pointed to the housing foreclosures lingering impact on those struggling to make ends meet.

"We're still seeing cases come in and see the effects of people trying to stay in their homes," Mannina said.

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413 496-6233.


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