A recent report by a Boston Bar Association task force revealed that more than two-thirds of eligible applicants for legal aid were turned away because of a lack of resources, forcing them to represent themselves in court. This is a major failing, the costs of which are borne ultimately by the taxpayer. The Legislature should find a way to increase funding for civil legal aid in the next budget.
The United States Constitution guarantees legal representation for all defendants in criminal cases, even if they can’t afford it on their own. But that right is not extended to those involved in civil suits. Traditionally, legal aid for civil suits has been mostly paid for by a combination of state and federal funds, as well as by interest collected on trust accounts. Those are accounts held by lawyers that contain money kept in escrow for clients. This funding — called IOLTA funding — is often tied to bank interest rates, which leaves it vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy.
In 2007, IOLTA provided $31.8 million for legal aid in Massachusetts. This year, however, with interest rates near historic lows, these accounts are only expected to generate $4.5 million, according to the report. This, coupled with decreases in federal funding, has wreaked havoc on the program. The human costs are significant: 80 percent of eligible applicants for help with issues involving family law, which includes child support cases, were turned away. So, too, were 56 percent of housing law cases, which includes foreclosures.
The effects can be seen across the judicial system. The vast majority of judges surveyed in the report agreed that people without counsel are far more likely to present evidence incorrectly, putting their entire case at risk, or require help from court staff with the trial process. Cases can drag on far longer than they should, bogging down the court system.
The best solution is for the Legislature to increase the appropriations for civil legal aid in the next budget session. The state now spends $15 million per year on legal aid programs; the task force recommends an additional $30 million increase over three years. This still wouldn’t meet demand — in 2006, when IOLTA payments where much higher than they are today, civil legal aid agencies still turned away around 50 percent of applicants. But it would begin to address the shortfall in the system. Besides, increasing the appropriation now can lead to real savings down the line for the Commonwealth. The task force found that every dollar spent on legal aid to keep people in their homes saves the state $2 in homelessness benefits. It’s far better to invest money now for legal aid than it is to bear the costs later.