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The Podium

A growing need for legal aid

Shanice, a young mother of two, considers herself lucky to live in Cambridge public housing. She can’t afford to pay market rent for an apartment on her wages as a hotel worker, and she knows from personal experience that time spent on the waiting list for an apartment like hers can stretch on for years. So Shanice was shocked and frightened when she received a notice from the Cambridge Housing Authority saying that they were evicting her because she owed $197 in unpaid rent. Within 48 hours, a moving truck would be at her door.

Shanice had paid her rent and was sure the notice was a mistake, but she couldn’t afford a lawyer to contest the eviction. She was afraid that she would have to move to a homeless shelter with her 9- and 4-year-old sons. But Shanice was lucky. She found free legal help at Greater Boston Legal Services, where an attorney discovered that the Housing Authority had added maintenance fees to her rent and was trying to illegally evict her for non-payment of these fees. The charges were for minor issues, like failing to attach trash can lids. The attorney contested the eviction in housing court, and Shanice was able to keep her home.

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People like Shanice face similar challenges every day in courtrooms throughout Massachusetts, but unlike her, they are often forced to navigate complex legal proceedings by themselves because they can’t afford an attorney. These are families facing eviction and foreclosure, working people who are denied unemployment, the elderly needing coverage for medication and mothers seeking child support.

Civil legal aid programs like GBLS, funded in part by the Commonwealth, have historically provided attorneys for residents unable to afford them. However, reduced funding has left these programs unable to keep up with a growing need for assistance. Today, civil legal aid programs turn away more than half of the people who request their help. Without an attorney, these litigants are at a disadvantage when facing mortgage companies, abusive spouses or partners, landlords and employers with greater means. A recent study by a Harvard Law School professor found that tenants who face eviction with a lawyer had significantly better outcomes than those who represented themselves.

The companies that drive the Massachusetts economy would not be able to do business without seasoned attorneys to represent their interests. Similarly, low-income people face severe disadvantages when they must turn to the courts alone.

Civil legal aid will need an increased investment from the Commonwealth in next year’s budget to prevent further cuts and even greater strain on our court system. That investment will also pay financial dividends to the Commonwealth: In the last fiscal year alone, new revenue and cost savings produced by civil legal aid programs were estimated at $48 million, of which $27 million was in the form of new federal revenues.

Like Shanice, many of my coworkers at Biogen call Cambridge home. Our company employs more than 1,500 people in Cambridge, and if we want to grow and generate more jobs here and in our other Massachusetts locations, we need healthy employees and safe neighborhoods in which to do business. Legal aid has the power to maintain safe and vibrant communities during difficult economic times by keeping families like Shanice’s from homelessness and poverty. That is why I urge our elected officials to increase civil legal aid funding now. Such an investment will pay dividends for the Commonwealth, its businesses, and its most vulnerable residents now and into the future.

Susan Alexander is executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at Biogen IDEC.
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