A View from the Hill
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 6, 2000
CONTACT: Tommy Voltero (617) 722-2240; E-mail:Thomas.Voltero@hou.state.ma.us
LEGAL ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS ENSURE EQUAL JUSTICE FOR ALL
Anyone who has braved the turbulent waters of the American legal system
knows that it is incredibly difficult to "go it alone." With its complex
jargon, procedures, and formalities, our legal system can be very
intimidating to those who have not had the benefit of a legal education.
The mere task of writing a brief or arguing a motion makes the task of
litigation something to be reserved for only those with years of training
Why, then, are thousands of Massachusetts residents walking into courtrooms
every day and acting as their own attorneys?
According to a study by the American Bar Association, 233,000 elder victims
of mortgage fraud, battered women seeking independence from their abusers,
people unfairly denied disability benefits, and countless others are not
receiving the legal services they need each year. Some legal assistance
agencies report that they are turning away 3 out of 5 qualified applicants.
Many of these folks are taking it upon themselves to go to court and press
their case without any legal training whatsoever.
Unfortunately, such actions are the only choices for individuals who cannot
afford to pay the high costs of legal representation for civil cases.
Unlike criminal cases where the state has a Constitutional requirement to
provide "assistance of counsel" to those being prosecuted, civil litigants
are essentially left to their own resources. Those who cannot come up with
the $100/hour rate of licensed attorneys are left arguing for themselves, or
in legal jargon, "pro se."
As we might expect, the results have been less than satisfactory. Courts
are already overburdened with thousands and thousands of backlogged cases.
Litigants who have no knowledge of civil procedure not only frustrate
themselves and the court officials who work with them, but they often cause
more delays in the system. Judges, magistrates, and others can "testify" to
the fact that "pro se" litigants make life difficult for most involved in
the legal field. In addition to impeding the legal process, "pro se"
litigants often fail to prove their case, regardless of the strength of the
Ironically, many of these individuals should be winning because the facts
are on their side. Facts alone, however, do not win cases.
Laws and regulations are continually changing, and it is difficult for the
lay person to stay abreast of these new developments. For this reason,
skilled lawyers with extensive knowledge of state and federal laws are of
crucial importance. Not only can they navigate the difficult waters of the
legal system for a client, they can also help a litigant put the facts
together in a coherent fashion so that a judge or jury may understand them.
A case that is properly researched and presented always has a better chance
of winning than one that just "shoots from the hip."
When indigent people are represented by people trained in the law, they are
able to obtain what is rightfully theirs- often at a tremendous savings to
In the case of disabled residents who were mistakenly being denied federal
Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, for example, legal services
attorneys won nine out of ten cases for their clients. For every dollar
spent on legal services for such cases state taxpayers saved $5 in
disability payments for which they would have otherwise been responsible.
Elderly fraud victims (who are often living on a fixed income) have
successfully sued to get back what was stolen from them, so that they once
again be dependent on themselves and not the state.
"Deadbeat dads" have been forced to come up with overdue child support
payments, saving the state millions in welfare funds.
Victims of domestic violence have been able to leave their abusive
environments and obtain custody of their children, thereby preventing a
costly intervention by the state down the road. Beyond the monetary cost
savings, victims and their children are spared the psychological scarring
that inevitably occurs in the presence of physical, sexual, or emotional
In Massachusetts, there are several programs whose purpose is to provide the
aforementioned benefits to those who cannot afford legal services. Some of
the most important programs are run by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance
This organization (supported by state appropriations, donations, pro bono
work, and revenue from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program),
funds 18 legal services programs serving low-income people across the
Commonwealth. These programs provide assistance to low-income people for
issues such as family law, housing, income maintenance, employment, and
The MLAC has been providing services for over 15 years and has made a
difference in the lives of many. Because of this, the state legislature is a
strong advocate of the work it does.
Last week, I met with some constituents who were also strong advocates of
this organization. They expressed their concerns about increasing the
funding to the MLAC in order to provide full access to legal representation
for the indigent. In this era of economic boom, the time has come to
support those who have been denied the benefit of proper of representation.
Legal assistance programs, in addition to saving money for the Commonwealth,
provide services whose value cannot be assessed in economic terms. Who can
calculate the value of saving someone from an abusive partner? Who can
determine the worth of keeping a family in housing and off of the streets?
Who can put a price on the moments a child will spend not worrying about
getting beaten for "being bad"? The answer is that no one can, for these
are things that are truly priceless.