BOSTON (SHNS) – The state’s largest donor to civil legal aid is calling on lawmakers to increase state funding by 20 percent in the 2022 budget to help fund services for low-income residents who are facing legal issues in areas such as Housing, Employment, Education, and Government Benefits.
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Lawmakers and representatives of several state civil legal aid companies gathered on Zoom Tuesday to push for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (0321-1600) line item to be increased by $ 6 million. The chair of the second division, Ruth Balser, said the legislature was “deeply committed” to legal assistance under civil law.
“There is no justice when people without resources cannot protect themselves from our courts … and MLAC and the services they offer always help people who have unemployment problems, problems with eviction, problems with access to health care, problems with immigration, [and] Domestic violence problems, ”the Newton Democrat said during a virtual briefing. “I have to say that we always value the work our legal service friends do, but nothing has been quite like the challenge they faced during this pandemic.”
And those who work on the ground say the challenges the pandemic poses are immense for the organizations providing legal services and the people who seek them. Lynne Parker, MLAC’s executive director, said she remained concerned that the number of people qualifying and using civil law services would continue to grow as a result of the pandemic.
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“Unfortunately, given the limited resources available, we are still looking at legal aid programs that have to make very difficult decisions about who to help,” she said during the briefing. “And more than 50 percent of those eligible for legal aid have yet to be turned away.”
Parker said the increase in funding over the past few years “really makes a difference” to the many people across the state seeking legal counsel.
The company received $ 29 million in fiscal 2021, $ 24 million in budget 2020, and is targeting $ 35 million in fiscal 2022 under general funds law. Governor Charlie Baker, in his proposal for FY2022 (H 1) now before the House Ways and Means Committee, proposed funding the line item at FY21.
Jay McManus is the executive director of the Massachusetts Children’s Law Center, an organization that provides legal services to low-income children and adolescents. The bulk of the funds the center receives from MLAC will be used to individually represent children of all ages in the northeast and greater Boston area.
The pandemic has forced the centre’s 10 lawyers, three support staff and volunteers to find a more innovative approach to the legal profession, as providing legal services is “much more time consuming”.
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“It has become more complex to actually serve children in education,” he said. “The big problems for these children and poor communities that we are seeing are centered around access to distance learning, access to the technology that drives that distance learning. We have made education a top priority because of the problems families and children have faced on this front since March last year. “
In Community Legal Aid’s Family Law Unit, attorneys focus primarily on litigation that deals with domestic violence, divorce, custody, restraining orders, and alimony. The CLA employee’s attorney, Irit Tau-Webber, said she saw an increase in demand from applicants living with abusive partners.
“You have no relief. Everyone is at home. Your spouses may work at home during the pandemic or be unemployed due to the pandemic, ”she said. “What could have been a tolerable relationship may have reached a crisis point because everyone is standing on top of each other in a small space and financial concerns and tensions may arise. We work with them to find a safe, effective, and private way to communicate. “
In addition, Tau-Webber said that CLA has seen an increase in the need for applicants who deal with cases that would have been straightforward in normal times, but “may find it very difficult for them to navigate this system” because of the pandemic.
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“The support that might be in place to facilitate their access to justice in the courthouse is not as available due to staggered workloads and the closure of various resources that would normally be available in the courthouse,” she said. “And so something as simple as filing for divorce could become an utterly impossible undertaking for some of our applicants.”
And on the apartment front, Mike Weinhold, the housing attorney at Northeast Legal Aid said, “COVID has changed everything with the way we practice in the apartment.”
During normal times, housing attorneys met in person in courthouses, but public health measures taken to contain the spread of the virus have forced the department to overhaul its reception system.
“We had to make all of our forms fillable and able to work remotely, and we have a relatively large unit that we need to communicate everything remotely now. The trials have changed radically. They are all at Zoom now, ”he said. “The legal questions are complicated because the landscape is constantly changing with different protective measures, moratoriums and rules for RAFT. And the cases generally take longer. “