Powerless count on civic legal services for help; join “The Walk to the Hill”

On Jan. 29, we have a date at the State House with more than 1,000 other lawyers and advocates from across the commonwealth: We will be attending the annual “Walk to the Hill’ in support of a substantial increase in funding for the statewide network of civil legal service programs funded by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

We will also be joined by SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants and Attorney General Maura Healey, and after hearing the story of how one client had a life transformed by just one legal service lawyer we will visit with the governor and our own state reps and senators to advocate for a strong network of civil legal service programs in Massachusetts.

As a young lawyer, Jim Dolan was a legal services lawyer providing legal assistance to low-income clients as part of the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty. Civil legal services were available in all Boston neighborhoods and he was the manager of the South Boston office of Greater Boston Legal Services.

“A primary focus was on housing issues,” he says. “Without legal assistance, low income tenants were powerless to contend with unscrupulous landlords who demanded high rents for substandard apartments. The structural imbalance that existed between landlords and tenants was most evident in the courts, often resulting in families being evicted from indecent, unsafe, and unsanitary units in violation of the state sanitary code.

“Thanks to the efforts of my colleagues in Greater Boston Legal Services, for the first time low-income tenants had a voice. Substandard conditions were challenged in court and landlords forced to bring their units in compliance. Failure to do so could result in fines and rent withholding. Thousands of units throughout the city were brought up to code thanks to civil legal aid.

“The practice of burning rubbish in on-site incinerators by the Boston Housing Authority was challenged in court as dangerous to the health of residents and was stopped as a result of an action brought on their behalf by legal aid attorneys.”

Advocates at the Walk to the Hill will find that many legislators already refer constituents to legal services to apply for legal support to keep their homes from being foreclosed on, to seek protection from eviction from unscrupulous landlords, or to gain legal advice to deal with domestic violence, discrimination in employment and wage theft, or help with eligibility for health care, social services, food stamps, income maintenance, and emergency shelter for the homeless.

Most legislators know that civil legal service programs here in Dorchester and across the state can help low income people maintain safe, stable, and healthy lives. However, many may not know that today the Massachusetts Legal Service Corporation is faced with significant declines in funding from the interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA), which has decreased by more than $27 million since 2007.

As a result, legal aid programs like Greater Boston Legal Services have been forced to lay off staff and turn away thousands of eligible residents in recent years.

At the Walk to the Hill, we will be distributing a recent report by the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts documenting that 64 percent of eligible cases were turned away by civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts in 2013 due to lack of funding and recommending an increase of $30 million over the next three years.

We know that legal assistance is essential to protect fundamental human rights such as health care, decent housing, education and opportunity. Without enforcement by civil legal service attorneys, such rights are more a dream than reality. It is easy to proclaim the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but without the means to attain them, it becomes a false promise.

That’s what the Walk to the Hill is all about. Please join us on Jan. 29.

Judy Meredith is a resident of Dorchester and is active in the Social Justice Committee of First Parish Church and the Bowdoin Geneva Residents Association. Jim Dolan is a former district court justice who now practices law.