Like many Commissions, we hold meetings, have committees and issue reports. And while all of that can sound just a bit stuffy and distant our work affects – and improves – the lives of real people. It’s not always easy to put a face on those people, but read on and we’ll tell some stories to try to bring a bit of life to our work.
Sylvia watched in horror as he splashed gasoline around the kitchen and onto her feet, threatening to light a lighter. He had been violent before, but this brought a new level of terror. She fled the house, called the police, and, later, watched as her husband was taken away. Finally, a safe ending to Sylvia’s story of domestic violence; except, that wasn’t the end of the story. Sylvia and her husband had children together. They had always shared the family bills, but the house, the car, and the insurance were in his name. They were still married, and Sylvia was still afraid. She wanted a divorce, but could not afford an attorney; Sylvia needed civil legal assistance.
Becoming the victim of a crime is a life-changing event. The impact can be felt by all members of a family, over many years, and in many ways. Historically, the cost of civil legal assistance put help out of reach for most victims. Today, free legal aid to victims of violent crime is available across Massachusetts, thanks to the hard work and innovative thinking of members and partners of the Third Access to Justice Commission, most notably the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. After two years of outreach, research, collaboration, and targeted advocacy, Massachusetts has secured funding and assembled a state-wide Civil Legal Aid for Victims of Crime (CLAVC) team of 26 attorneys providing free assistance on a range of civil legal issues arising out of violence. One of those attorneys took Sylvia’s case. Today, with the help of her CLAVC attorney, Sylvia is divorced. She has custody of her children, is the payee for benefits for her children based on her ex-husband’s work history, and retains sole interest in her car and her retirement account. She also will receive seventy percent of the equity in the family home once it is sold. Sylvia and her children are physically safe, financially secure, and ready to move forward with their lives.
To learn more about the CLAVC funding and how the Commission helped secure it, click here.
 For privacy, a pseudonym is used in place of the client’s real name.
When attorney Martha Koster started to wind down her legal career and consider retirement, she knew she wanted to incorporate service into the next phase of her life. In 2012, she joined forces with her Mintz colleague Sue Finegan to create the Access to Justice Fellows Program to connect senior attorneys and judges with long-term pro bono projects on behalf of nonprofits, legal services organizations, and the courts. Soon thereafter, the Access to Justice Commission agreed to sponsor the program, with the strong support of the late SJC Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, the then-co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission.
That fall, Martha joined the inaugural class of seven Fellows and partnered with the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation (PAIR) Project, where she started to represent people seeking asylum. Through her ongoing work with PAIR, which continues to this day, Martha has helped many people acquire status in the United States. In 2019, she successfully helped one such person, Michael (name changed), who is gay, after he fled his home country of Jamaica. Today, Michael lives happily with his partner in Central Massachusetts. Said Martha, “As a lawyer, I’ve found this work to be one of the most gratifying things I’ve done.”
A number of Fellows have joined Martha at PAIR, including Tom Hannigan (2013-14 Fellow) , with whom she provided direct legal assistance on asylum cases, as well as Michael Diener (2015-16 Fellow), Irene Friedel (2017-18 Fellow), Hugh Scott (2018-2019 Fellow), Rom Watson (2018-2019 Fellow), and Michael Felsen (2018-2019 Fellow). In addition to asylum cases, Martha has worked on detention cases, U Visas, unaccompanied minor cases, green card applications, bond cases, and BIA and First Circuit Court appeals. In 2016, Martha received the PAIR Project Outstanding Achievement Award.
Today, over 150 senior and retired attorneys and judges have signed on to become Access to Justice Fellows through the program, now operated by Lawyers Clearinghouse in conjunction with the Access to Justice Commission. They have provided 110,000 hours of pro bono service, partnered with over 100 organizations, contributing decades of legal expertise to a wide range of pro bono projects spanning subjects such as child welfare, homelessness and housing insecurity, veterans’ issues, environmental justice, and so much more. As these dedicated attorneys have shown, retirement may be an end, but it is also a beginning.
Innovative Legal Aid Funding
One Friday afternoon, a young couple with two small children came to the waiting room of MetroWest Legal Services. The family had spent the prior four nights sleeping in a car after a state worker had dismissed their request for emergency shelter without ever meeting with them. The MetroWest Legal Services staff attorney immediately went to work to obtain the family shelter so they did not have to spend another night sleeping in a car.
The family was one of the lucky ones. Nearly 950,000 Massachusetts residents–about 18%–make less than the $30,000 in family income that qualifies them for a free lawyer for civil problems like housing, family law, or immigration. And yet, more than half of those who seek assistance, and are financially eligible, get turned away due to inadequate funding for civil legal aid organizations.
The A2J Commission continues to tackle this serious funding gap for civil legal services by thinking creatively and strategically. One solution – the voluntary “add-on opt-out” fee to a lawyer’s yearly attorney registration – has already generated $7.5 million for civil legal aid for low income people.
The concept, which was modeled after similar programs in several states, gives attorneys an opportunity to voluntarily pay an extra $51 fee when they register each year with the entire amount directed entirely to civil legal aid. The initiative was spearheaded by former A2J Commission Co-Chairs David Rosenberg and Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, working alongside several A2J Commissioners, and was authorized by the Supreme Judicial Court in June 2010.
The $7.5 million raised to date, as well as a $1 million increase the legislature allocated to civil legal aid last year, allowed civil legal aid organizations to open an estimated 1,359 additional cases and serve thousands more additional clients and their families in need. The A2J Commission will continue to fight for legal aid funding because everyone deserves access to justice and no one should ever sleep in a car.
Thanks to the A2J Commission, low income, self-represented litigants make their way to the Appeals Court in Boston’s John Adams Courthouse every Wednesday seeking free “same day” help from volunteer attorneys through the Civil Appellate Pro Bono Program. They come from all over Massachusetts, oftentimes traveling hours on a bus or train with plastic bags of case paperwork in hand. For many, this is their first experience with an attorney, and they are looking for both professional advice and an attorney to take on their appeal pro bono.
The Civil Appellate Pro Bono Program, which is the first of its kind in Massachusetts, was initiated in 2013 when then-Associate Justice Ralph D. Gants, now Chief Justice, tasked a committee of the A2J Commission with assessing the state’s need for appellate pro bono services. The committee learned that the Appeals Court in Massachusetts was fielding questions from at least 40 to 50 self-represented litigants each day, and that its docket was loaded with pending appeals involving at least one self-represented litigant. Now 285 volunteer attorneys have staffed weekly clinics, and offer individual appellate representation where warranted.
The Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association (VLP) and the law firm of Mintz Levin agreed to manage the program, opening the clinic’s doors for an initial pilot phase at Boston’s Edward W. Brooke Court Service Center. In December 2015, the clinic went statewide, moving to a dedicated space in the Appeals Court – thanks to the urging of Chief Justice Scott Kafker of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, great assistance from Joseph Stanton, the Clerk of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, and participation by several other law firms and legal services organizations.
751 individuals served to date
285 volunteer attorneys
106 merits review panel cases