A2J Problems and Solutions

Image 1 compressedProblems:

  • Civil legal services programs in Massachusetts, like their counterparts nationally, continue to lack sufficient funding to meet the needs of the vast number of litigants. Even before the pandemic, insufficient funding resulted in organizations turning away the majority of eligible people seeking assistance. However, after the pandemic hit, legal aid in Massachusetts saw an increase in need for services.
  • Although the Massachusetts Legislature has increased aid for civil legal services significantly over the last several years, raising the state appropriation for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) to $35 million for FY2022 from $29 million in FY2021, the need for additional funding remains great.

Solutions:

  • 150 current and former Fellows of the Access to Justice Fellows program have provided over 115,000 hours of pro bono service to 90 different non-profit organizations, courts and other public interest entities. The Fellows program is run by Lawyers Clearinghouse with support from the Access to Justice Commission.
  • The Commission initiated a pilot Appellate Civil Pro Bono Program in Suffolk County in 2014 to provide free counsel to some of the approximately 40-50 self-represented litigants who call the Appeals Court Clerk’s Office every day. The Volunteer Lawyers Project, which led the project with Mintz, other law firms, the clerks’ offices, and other legal service entities, was so successful that it expanded statewide in December of 2015. During the pandemic, the Appeals Clinic successfully transitioned to remote services.
  • One of the judicial members of the Second Commission chaired the Supreme Judicial Court’s Committee to Study the Code of Judicial Conduct (Code Committee). As part of its comprehensive review of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which went into effect on January 1, 2016, the Code Committee made several innovative recommendations regarding a judge’s role with respect to self-represented litigants. For example, Rule 2.6(A) expressly permits a judge to make reasonable efforts to facilitate the ability of self-represented litigants to be heard fairly, and a Comment provides examples of permissible accommodations. The Supreme Judicial Court adopted the new Code, and it went into effect on January 1, 2016 (Supreme Judicial Court Rule 3:09: Code of Judicial Conduct).
  • The Commission advocated for the creation of a voluntary annual $51 “access to justice” attorney registration fee. Since the implementation of the fee, approximately $1 million has been generated each year, which is distributed to legal services organizations serving low income clients with civil legal needs.
  • The Commission received one of seven Public Welfare Foundation/Justice for All Grants to develop a strategic action plan for improving access to justice throughout the commonwealth. The Commission has since hosted the inaugural statewide Justice for All Conference, which brought together leaders in legal services, private practice, and the government and judiciary to form targeted working groups addressing key areas such as consumer debt, family law, housing law, and the overall legal help ecosystem.
  • The Commission also collaborated on two-one year pilots, one in housing and other in consumer debt, designed to test ideas proposed in the strategic action plan, through a grant from the Public Welfare Foundation/Kresge Foundation and Open Society Foundations. This strategic action plan continues as an important guide to the Commission.
  • The Commission conducted an extensive examination of access to justice initiatives that might enhance the experience of self-represented litigants in the Housing Court, and undertook intensive efforts to expand the Court and ensure litigants would have access to knowledgeable judges and specialized initiatives such as the Tenancy Preservation Program. In 2017, a committee comprised of Commissioners and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute successfully advocated for statewide expansion of the Housing Court in the Massachusetts budget for fiscal year 2018. The Commission continues to focus on areas that expand access for self-represented litigants.
  • The Commission is part of a collaborative group that analyzes whether Federal funds – other than those from the Legal Services Corporation – can be tapped to meet the funding gap for civil legal aid.
  • At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, the Commission created a COVID-19 Task Force to foster collaboration and marshal resources to respond to the particular challenges of accessing justice and connecting those in need with resources during the pandemic. Over time, the work of the Task Force has been integrated into the overall Commission structure while a COVID-19 Leadership team continues to address the issues that resulted from, or have been highlighted during, the pandemic.