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SJC Chief Justice Kimberly Budd calls for increased civil legal aid funding for low-income residents

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd.
Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2020

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd on Wednesday called for increased funding for civil legal aid for low-income residents, calling it a step toward “eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in our society,” the SJC said.

Budd, confirmed in November as the first Black woman to lead the state’s highest court, delivered her remarks during a virtual gathering of the 22nd annual Talk to the Hill event organized by the Equal Justice Coalition, according to the SJC. The event’s name was changed this year from its customary “Walk to the Hill” title, owing to the constraints of the pandemic.

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The coalition is a collaboration between the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, a body established by the Legislature in 1983 to ensure low-income residents have representation in non-criminal matters including housing, employment, family law, health care, education, immigration, protection of seniors, and domestic violence issues such as restraining orders, according to the SJC.

Budd said the legal assistance corporation has asked for a $6 million increase in funding for the next fiscal year, which the SJC said would raise the outlay from the state from $29 million in the budget Governor Charlie Baker signed last month to $35 million.

The proposed increase, Budd said, is “less than one dollar per Massachusetts resident. Or, as [the late SJC] Chief Justice [Ralph] Gants might have said, ‘It’s less than the cost of a soda at McDonald’s.’ Who would not spare an extra soda to extend legal aid to a single parent and children facing eviction, a veteran who needs help obtaining benefits, a senior struggling with debt suits, or a spouse seeking protection from domestic violence?”

She said the “additional legal assistance that dollar provides may be the difference for someone between having a home and losing it, making ends meet or going without heat, staying safe or living in fear.”

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Martin F. Murphy, president of the Boston Bar Association welcomed the news of the chief justice’s support.

Murphy said increasing the amount of civil legal aid available to Massachusetts residents has been “a high priority” for the association “for many, many years.” A study conducted by a task force in 2014 found that every dollar spent on civil legal aid saved about $2.50 in associated costs.

“The legal system is, unfortunately, so complicated that trying to navigate it without a lawyer is just really a challenge for people who are in [one of] the most vulnerable positions they’re ever going to be in,” Murphy, a partner at Foley Hoag LLP, said in an interview. “It causes havoc, really, in the courts when people are unrepresented.”

Jacquelynne J. Bowman, the executive director of Greater Boston Legal Services, said the organization appreciates Budd’s “commitment to ensuring justice for all by calling for increased funding for civil legal aid.”

“We know that many people are denied justice because they cannot afford legal counsel,” Bowman said in a statement Wednesday night “Justice should be available to all who need it and increased funding for civil legal aid is one vehicle to achieve reasonable access.”

Currently, Budd said, more than half the clients served by Massachusetts legal aid groups receiving grants from the federal Legal Services Corporation are people of color.

“If we are truly committed to eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in our society, one of the simplest steps that we can take toward that goal is to make it possible for more people to receive legal aid,” she said.

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But right now, Budd continued, legal aid groups have to turn away “well over half” those seeking help.

“They do not have the resources to meet everyone’s needs,” Budd said. “And as you all know, those needs are especially great right now, with all the problems caused by the pandemic. Employment, housing, family law, domestic violence, consumer debt, and immigration are all areas of particular concern.”

She credited Baker, who appointed her as chief justice following the September death of Gants, and state lawmakers for understanding the urgency of the situation.

“We are very fortunate to live in a state where the governor and the Legislature understand these issues,” Budd said. “In recent years, the Legislature has provided steady increases in funding for legal services. As a result, we have seen significant improvements in the percentages of people receiving assistance.”

But the work must continue, she said, especially amid an ongoing pandemic that’s hit the most vulnerable especially hard, as well as the “persistent reality” of racial injustice.

“We cannot solve all of these problems today,” Budd said. “But together, as lawyers and judges, we can at least pledge to maintain a safe space where the rule of law is enforced and our problems can be addressed fairly and equitably.”

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Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.