IF YOU’RE an indigent criminal defendant, the state provides you with a lawyer for free. But there is no such guarantee for needy Massachusetts residents involved in civil cases, such as home foreclosures or the threat of losing medical coverage. Especially in tough economic times, the most vulnerable citizens are left to fend for themselves in court.
Legal aid organizations rely on financial support from the state and federal government, as well as from donations from private lawyers. That money has been drying up, and with it, access to legal assistance. Another main funding source - interest earned on client funds held by lawyers - is also down because interest rates have declined to near zero. As a result, organizations such as Greater Boston Legal Services have been forced to turn away thousands of clients because they don’t have the funds or people to represent them.
In a recent opinion piece, Margaret Marshall, the former chief justice of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, called upon the state and local legal community to step up and support legal aid lawyers so they can assist more indigent clients. Her request is worth honoring. When times are tough, the poor have the toughest time protecting what little they have, be it homes, Medicaid and Medicare benefits - or, in the case of women, protecting their families from abusive partners. As Marshall pointed out, those litigants need the help of lawyers just as much as those accused of committing a crime.