How can we ensure effective assistance for everyone with an essential civil legal need?

The project

In 2016, Massachusetts was awarded a grant to develop a strategic action plan for improving access to justice throughout the Commonwealth. The Access to Justice Commission, the courts, legal aid providers, bar associations, law schools, social service organizations, litigants, community groups, and other stakeholders collaborated in this effort. We assessed the available resources to assist residents who could not afford a lawyer for their essential legal needs – such as those involving housing, consumer debt, and family law – and developed a statewide Strategic Action Plan (SAP) for addressing gaps in those services.

The grant was provided through the Justice for All project, which was generously supported by the Public Welfare Foundation and housed at the National Center for State Courts. The Justice for All project was established to implement a 2015 resolution by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators, which endorsed the goal of providing 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs. Twenty-five states applied for grants, and Massachusetts was one of seven that received them.

The project was managed by the following team:

  • Honorable Ralph D. Gants, Chief Justice, Supreme Judicial Court, Co-Chair, Access to Justice Commission
  • Honorable Geraldine S. Hines, Justice (ret.), Supreme Judicial Court, Former Co-Chair, Access to Justice Commission
  • Honorable Dina E. Fein, First Justice, Hampden County Housing Court, Special Advisor for Access to Justice Initiatives for the Trial Court Department
  • Susan M. Finegan, Esq., Chair, Pro Bono Committee, Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky & Popeo, PC; Co-Chair, Access to Justice Commission
  • Jacquelynne J. Bowman, Esq., Executive Director, Greater Boston Legal Services
  • Russell Engler, Esq., Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs, New England Law, Boston
  • Laura Gal, Esq., Staff Attorney, Community Legal Aid; Consultant, Access to Justice Commission
  • Maura Kelly, Esq., Senior Manager for Access to Justice, Executive Office of the Trial Court
  • Chip Phinney, Esq., Deputy Legal Counsel, Supreme Judicial Court
  • Marilyn Wellington, Esq., Executive Director, Board of Bar Examiners

Marc Lauritsen of Capstone Practice Systems, a Massachusetts lawyer and educator, was engaged to facilitate the project.

The project culminated in December 2017 with the publication of the Massachusetts Justice For All Strategic Action Plan.

The Strategic Action Planning Process

Development of the Massachusetts SAP took place over the 2017 calendar year. In the first quarter, the Project Management Team met to plan how they would: assess the present justice landscape; create a vision for a system capable of delivering effective assistance to meet essential civil legal needs in Massachusetts; and develop a roadmap to get from today’s reality to the envisioned network of legal and non-legal assistance necessary to provide access to justice for all in our Commonwealth.   After exploring several possible approaches, the Team determined that three substantive areas of law were disproportionately affected by limited access to justice: housing, consumer debt, and family law. In order to address needs in these areas and, at the same time, develop systems that could assist individuals in all areas of need, the Team established four working groups: Housing Working Group, Consumer Debt Working Group, Family Law Working Group, and Ecosystem Working Group. The Ecosystem Working Group was tasked with identifying obstacles common to many or all substantive areas of need and developing pathways to responsive assistance.

During 2017, project consultant Marc Lauritsen and working group members held four regional meetings around the state to gather input from the public.

A statewide conference, held at Harvard Law School, convened an invited group reflecting a broad spectrum of stakeholders from across the Commonwealth with the goals of spurring action and shaping strategies to achieve 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs. In addition to the substantive areas mentioned above, the group addressed cross-cutting questions about the overall access-to-justice ecosystem and its infrastructure. The ‘Justice for All 2017 Mid-Project Report‘ summarizes the conference at Harvard Law School and events leading up to it.

A second, smaller conference was held at Suffolk University Law School. The goal of this session was to hear outlines from each of the four working groups and to provide feedback prior to drafting the final product of the project, the SAP. A final SAP was submitted to the Justice for All project on December 22, 2017.

Completion of the SAP triggered Massachusetts’ eligibility to apply for additional funding from the Justice for All project in 2018. This second round of support aimed to facilitate one-year pilots of ideas articulated in state SAPs. In April 2018, the Commission received notice that its proposal for two one-year pilots, one in housing and the other in consumer debt, designed to test ideas proposed in the Strategic Action Plan, had been accepted. In late June 2018, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (“MLAC”) received $200,000 to fund the two pilots, thanks to support from the Public Welfare Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations.

Pilot Projects in Housing and Consumer Debt

In the housing pilot, Northeast Legal Aid and Lawrence Community Works worked together to establish a Housing Stabilization Center in Lawrence, MA to provide resources such as access to emergency funding, supportive services, and mediation to landlords and tenants to stabilize at-risk tenancies before an eviction case is filed. The pilot engaged in extensive outreach to the community to educate landlords and tenants about the program.  All 36 of the pilot participants remained in their homes at the conclusion of the pilot and through the financial counseling, job training and referrals provided by the Housing Stabilization Coordinator at the Center, 17 out of 36 participants had enhanced their monthly income by the end of the Pilot: an across-the-board total of $26,310, or an average of $1548 per month for those 17 families (or, amongst all 36 participants, an average increase of $731 per month). You can read the summary of the housing pilot here.

In the consumer debt pilot, an attorney from Greater Boston Legal Services worked with local community organizations to provide upstream education and training about consumer debt issues and consumer rights, as well as representation for consumer debtors in selected cases. He created and disseminated a set of online tools to assist end users and social services entities in addressing consumer debt before a court case is initiated or, where a case has been filed, before the next hearing date. He also supported development and staffing of a lawyer-for-the-day program for consumer debt cases in collaboration with the Volunteer Lawyers Project and the Dorchester Division of the Boston Municipal Court. By the end of the pilot, the attorney had closed 60 consumer debt cases resulting in total savings of more than $68,000 in reduced consumer debt. You can read the summary of the consumer debt pilot here.

Additional and Continued Efforts to Implement the Strategic Action Plan

After the completion of the SAP, the Commission formed a Justice for All Implementation Committee with four working groups — consumer debt, housing, family law, and ecosystem — to pursue implementation of the SAP. In addition to overseeing the two pilot projects, the Committee and its working groups undertook a number of other activities in collaboration with other partners during 2018 and 2019.  You can read more about these activities in our Annual Report on Activities, dated August 2019.

The SAP remains an important guide as the Commission continues to review and implement ideas from the SAP in its ongoing activities.

For more information

Review the National Center for State Courts’ Justice for All website which provides information on Justice For All initiatives nationwide.