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Yvonne Abraham

Civil legal aid is a sound investment for all of us

Sometimes, the world puts you in a situation so unfair, so absurd, that only a lawyer can get you out of it. But what if you can’t afford a lawyer?

What if you’re Remon Jourdan? Jourdan, 37, was paralyzed from the chest down after a car accident 10 years ago. He needs help with almost everything: dressing, bathing, eating, scratching itches.

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“Life happens, right?’’ Jourdan says.

So does Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Each week, four personal care assistants visit the Randolph home he shares with his mother to help him through his days. MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, had always funded them. But last summer Jourdan learned that the payments stopped, because his doctor had failed to sign a certain form. He appealed, and the state resumed the payments, but it refused to fund the month the application was in limbo. His assistants, like family to him, were out $4,000.

He appealed twice and was denied. So there he was, stuck, through no fault of his own, promising to pay his caregivers in dribs and drabs from his $500 monthly disability payment, even if it took him 10 years. Then, Jourdan got lucky - not lucky in the sense that the state’s paper-pushers saw the error of their ways, of course. No, he had the great good fortune to have his case taken by one of the state’s civil legal aid attorneys. It took 15 hours of work, but Nancy Lorenz, a senior lawyer at Greater Boston Legal Services, got Jourdan’s caregivers covered.

“She was a lifesaver,’’ Jourdan says of Lorenz. “I had no other avenues open to me.’’

Tens of thousands of people each year - people on low incomes seeking benefits they were unfairly denied or fighting unjust foreclosures and evictions or needing protection from battering spouses - have no other avenue.

People who can’t afford to pay their own lawyers have a constitutional right to public defenders when they face criminal charges. There’s no such guarantee for poor people who get mixed up in messes like Jourdan’s. And so there is the network of lawyers who take on civil cases like his for free. They’re funded by a combination of state money, funds from private law firms, and donations. They worked a whopping 28,000 cases in Massachusetts last fiscal year.

Civil legal aid has always been underfunded. But over the past three years, the work of these attorneys has hung by a slender thread. State appropriations have shrunk, and private donations have dwindled. The result? Legal aid programs have lost a third of their staff in the last three years. For every five people who come to legal aid attorneys for help navigating the court system, three are turned away, says Lonnie Powers, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the largest funding source for legal civil aid in the state.

“They’re on their own,’’ Powers says. “They lump it or go to court by themselves.’’

Lumping it costs not just those who find themselves alone in the maze of our legal system, but all of us. The asthma sufferer whose medication is no longer covered by Medicare ends up in the far more expensive emergency room. A family unfairly evicted ends up in pricier temporary housing. A worker unjustly denied jobless benefits lands on welfare. A study by Powers’s outfit estimates that legal aid boosted the state’s economy by $53 million last year through federal benefits won and state costs saved.

Those numbers have made an impression on Beacon Hill. Legislators recently proposed upping the Legal Assistance Corporation’s $9.5 million appropriation to $10.5 million. Governor Deval Patrick’s budget plan released yesterday bumps their funding for next year to $12 million. Powers and Jourdan, among others, will be on Beacon Hill today trying to persuade legislators in the House and Senate to go at least that far.

It’s not nearly enough, but it’s a start. And a very smart investment.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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