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letters | the justice gap

Tread lightly in calling for no-frills civil legal services for poor

Your Jan. 22 editorial “Mass. needs new strategies to meet needs of poor litigants” correctly notes that there is a shortage of lawyers to meet the critical legal needs of Massachusetts’ low-income population in civil cases. Your call to the Massachusetts legal community to identify legal matters that can be handled by people with more limited training is, at first blush, an appealing idea. In fact, the legal aid movement is one that, since its inception, has relied heavily on paralegals who, under the careful supervision of licensed attorneys, manage their own caseloads and advocate for low-income clients in a variety of administrative forums. We are already engaging in the “legal analog of allowing nurse practitioners to swab patients’ throats,” as you put it.

Yet there is a reason why people of means engaged in complex family law disputes and other court-based matters involving fundamental rights retain highly trained private attorneys to advocate for them: There is no replacement for the value brought by a skilled attorney who assists with civil legal issues affecting basic human needs such as housing, shelter, and family safety.

As we work to ensure access to justice for all regardless of income, we should tread cautiously and resist creating a system where we expect less for the poor people who need and deserve high-quality representation in the court system.

Jonathan L. Mannina
Executive director
Community Legal Aid