Report on Activities in 2011

 The Commission has compiled the following report, which can also be found on the Commission’s website, www.massaccesstojustice.org.

                                                  REPORT ON ACTIVITIES IN 2011

The Commission was reconstituted by the SJC in February 2010.  A report on accomplishments in 2010 can be found on the Commission’s website.

In 2011, the Commission expanded its efforts. 

             New resources for legal assistance to low-income individuals were developed.

             Pro bono efforts by Massachusetts’ lawyers, both in-house and in firms, were expanded. 

The systems that deliver legal assistance were studied, recommendations for improvements were adopted and are being implemented. 

Access to justice in administrative forums continued to draw Commission attention. 

The assistance available to self-representing litigants was improved, through enhanced technology, expanded information on the web and in the courts, and support for social service agencies that provide help to consumers with legal problems.  

The Report that follows briefly highlights accomplishments and work in progress at the end of December 2011.

I.  Resources:

At the Commission’s suggestion, last year the Supreme Judicial Court added a $51 opt-out Access to Justice Fee to annual attorney registration with the Board of Bar Overseers.  In its first year, the new Fee brought $1.1 million to the IOLTA Committee, which was then distributed to the three charitable entities (Mass Legal Assistance Corporation, Massachusetts Bar Foundation and Boston Bar Foundation) for their use in supporting legal services. 

On December 5 the Commission submitted  to the SJC a proposal for creation of a new pro hac vice fee of $300 to be imposed on lawyers from out-of-state seeking to appear as counsel in Massachusetts courts.  Proceeds of the fee would be turned over to the IOLTA Committee.  Forty states and the District of Columbia impose such a fee, but Massachusetts does not.  Eight states devote all or most of the proceeds to legal aid purposes.  The proposal has the support of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, the IOLTA Committee, MLAC and the Project Directors and its implementation plan is viewed as workable by the BBO and as a useful step by several leading court clerks. 

The Commission adopted a recommendation of its Revenue Enhancement Committee (led by Co-Chair Rosenberg) that a campaign be mounted to get every legal aid program to claim and collect attorneys fees in cases in which such fees are available.  Current practice in many legal aid firms does not involve making such claims.  With leadership from Massachusetts Law Reform Institute,  a group of leading legal services advocates is organizing the campaign, which will include practice materials, training for each office and follow-up to assure implementation. 

The Revenue Enhancement Committee has also spurred an effort to direct class action residuals to legal services programs.  The IOLTA Committee has taken the lead, preparing appropriate brochures for plaintiffs and defendants lawyers, state and federal judges and legal services lawyers.  Co-Chair Gants elicited support from Superior Court Chief Justice Rouse and Federal District Court Chief Judge Wolf. 

The Commission has supported successful funding proposals to the Legal Services Corporation and the State Justice Institute, has written to the Massachusetts’ legislative leadership in support of MLAC funding and against cuts in the Trial Court budget, and has approved sending a letter to the Governor supporting inclusion in the Governor’s next Supplemental Budget of funds to make up for the most recent decline of $1.7 million in IOLTA funding.  The Commission has also supported increased funding for the Legal Services Corporation and urged Citizens Bank not to cut its IOLTA rate. 

The Revenue Enhancement Committee is developing basic tools for mounting a statewide fund raising campaign, including a “business case” for philanthropic support of legal services.  [The Commissioners who are judges are taking no part in this activity.]  If implemented, the campaign will seek support from corporations, corporate leaders and wealthy individuals.  This will be the first such statewide effort and the first campaign not  targeted primarily at lawyers.  One potential benefit of this campaign is creation of funding for services outside greater Boston that balance the disproportionate presence of lawyer contributions from Boston-based law firms. 

II.  Pro Bono:

In the spring the Commission sponsored a Pro Bono Forum for In-House Counsel.  Lawyers working in corporate, educational and other legal departments rather than in law firms were encouraged to become involved in volunteering their services to help low-income clients on a pro bono publico basis.  In conjunction with the Forum, the Commission developed, and posted on the Commission website, a Massachusetts Pro Bono Opportunities Guide for In House Counsel.  Following the Forum, the Commission has been tracking the pro bono participation of the attendees,  and providing further support as requested.

The SJC’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services, adopting an initiative begun by Commission Co-Chair Gants, implemented a Pro Bono Recognition Program that annually honors law firms, solo practitioners, in-house corporate counsel offices, government attorneys offices, non-profit organizations and law school faculties for pro bono contributions above and beyond the requirements of Rule 6.1.  The first recognition ceremony was held in the SJC Courtroom in October, recognizing nineteen law firms and solo practitioners, as part of pro bono week celebrations.

The Commission is reviewing several mentoring models that recruit experienced practitioners to mentor new lawyers whose practice setting does not provide such mentoring.  Accordingly, the Commission reached out to various bar associations and legal services offices to inquire as to their mentorship initiatives.  The Commission also met with representatives from all of the state’s law schools to encourage them to develop mentoring efforts for their recent graduates.  The Commission then compiled a list of available mentoring opportunities throughout the state that was furnished to each newly admitted member of the Bar at the November swearing-in.

See the Technology section of this report regarding the statewide pro bono website. 

III.  Administrative Justice:

The Commission is involved in several collaborative efforts with state administrative agency leaders seeking to improve access to justice in the agencies: 

Reviewing the texts of letters denying government benefits and improving the clarity and effectiveness of the letters in telling applicants for benefits why benefits are being denied. 

Exploring the possibility that a single application could be used to access multiple benefit programs, reducing the repetitive demands for documentation that now arise and the cost of maintaining parallel and sometimes conflicting databases. 

Working with Patrick administration officials seeking to improve language access equality throughout agencies of the state that deal with the poor.

Joining with Access to Justice Commission members from other states to introduce better protections for self-representing litigants into state deliberations regarding adoption of the proposed Uniform State Laws revision to the Model Administrative Procedure Act. 

IV.  Delivery of Legal Services

The Commission’s Special Planning Committee (led by Co-Chair Rosenberg) studied major leadership transitions, entered into important debates about advocacy and explored proposed changes in the structures of organizations providing free legal assistance to low-income families.   The Committee met with groups of program board chairs and executive directors, discussed their plans and possible alternatives, issued a first interim report in May, and received and considered comments over the summer.  The Committee’s second interim report was adopted by the Commission in September and steps to implement the recommendations have begun.  Major themes and associated recommendations include: 

The Commission should assure that there is more regular, informed and effective planning and decision-making for the state delivery system.  Ongoing efforts to fulfill this role are being taken with MLAC, the bar foundations, the grantees and others. 

The structures and systems that regional delivery systems employ to deal with people seeking help are under great stress and need more organized study.  Every region must decide how to screen for eligibility, provide telephone advice, accept cases for extended representation and make referrals.  Major changes are contemplated in structures in two regions.  The current systems employ substantial advocacy resources which might be better used in providing extended representation.  In response to a Commission request, a Task Force has been convened to study and report recommendations for best practices. 

The amount of systemic advocacy seems lower than optimal.  In response to the Committee’s concerns, the Advocacy Coordination Committee (a group of leading advocates led by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute) has been asked to devise ways to increase the amount of this work. 

Communication among advocates and programs about goals, strategies, effective innovations and measurement of results is inadequate.  We lack important knowledge about priorities, the allocations of resources among many competing possible goals, what the legal work produces for clients and the relationship of outcomes achieved to resources committed.  Programs are being asked to invest time into increasing their knowledge of their use of resources and the outcomes of their work. 

The Special Planning Committee will continue to meet and develop these actions in collaboration with all relevant stakeholders. 

Participation in the Boston Bar Association’s Task Force on the Civil Right to Counsel continues.  The Task Force has completed two housing pilot projects studying the operation of a right to counsel for defined classes of tenants who would otherwise be likely to forfeit their rights.  The Task Force is preparing its report and parallel statistical reports are available in draft.

Following a meeting of Co-Chair Gants with the leaders of affinity bar associations, the Women’s Bar Association is developing a seminar to teach young attorneys techniques for building viable law practices based on doing work for low-income clients and being compensated based on fee-shifting or attorney’s fee statutes.  In addition, the Women’s Bar Association is developing a “Know Your Rights” program for leaders of Boston nonprofits focused on eradicating family homelessness, modeled after a unique program created by the South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston discussed at the affinity bar meeting.

Exploring ways to support social service agencies that provide information, advice and advocacy to low-income agency clients dealing with legal problems in administrative and judicial proceedings, through such devices as improving and making easily available legal information through www.masslegalhelp.org. 

V.  Technology

The Commission is actively supporting improving online information about poverty law, including making more data available and making all data more easily readable in multiple languages.  This work has included:

Co-sponsorship of the Massachusetts Justice Project application for Legal Services Corporation Technology Innovation Grants (TIG grants) for online access to and explanations of the forms required to modify child support orders;  The work on the awarded grant was on time and on budget in 2011.

Development and distribution of a “button” that can be placed on any website (e.g., court, legal services program, social service agency or administrative agency) linking to MLRI’s website www.MassLegalHelp.org;

Collaborating with the Trial Court’s Special Advisor on Access to Justice Initiatives in development of online website information and forms in multiple languages; and 

Collaborating with the Law Libraries of the Trial Court and Massachusetts Law Reform Institute in creation of an “ask the librarian” button on www.MassLegalHelp.org, which opens an instant message window to a Trial Court librarian who can guide the consumer to the desired information.

Creating a single, comprehensive webpage, available at www.MassLegalHelp.org, with links to all court-approved legal forms available online.

Support a successful application for a TIG grant by the Volunteer Lawyer’s Project to create a single website for access to all pro bono information and opportunities available across the state. 

VI.  Courts

Supporting the projects of the Special Advisor to the Trial Court on Access to Justice Initiatives , including the development of information centers in trial courts across the state, creating more forms available to self-representing litigants online and in multiple languages, and spreading the approval of limited access representation thoughout the trial courts.

Several years ago a special judicial committee issued guidelines for judges dealing with self-representing litigants.  The Commission is now seeking to codify those guidelines in the Code of Judicial Conduct. 

December 31, 2011

 

A SUMMARY OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN 2010

The reconstituted Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission made progress on many fronts during its first ten months.  Commission Co-Chair Ralph Gants distributed the following summary of the year at the Commission meeting January 13, 2011.


ADOPTED A SOLID STRUCTURE FOR ACCESS TO JUSTICE INITIATIVES

Organized around six working groups dealing with delivery of legal services, technology, administrative justice and court practice in probate and family court, housing court and district court together with Boston Municipal Court.

Result: Working Groups recruited more than fifty participants from the courts, the private bar, legal services and elsewhere

Result: Each working group has made significant steps toward improving access to justice (see elsewhere). 

Supported and coordinated with the work of the Trial Court’s Special Advisor on Access to Justice Initiatives

Result: The Special Advisor has achieved major initial goals including an initial report, the Berkman Centers technology report, the information center at the Brooke courthouse, and limited assistance representation. 

Created a Special Planning Committee to explore complex structural issues affecting the funded providers of civil legal services.

Result: Major realignments are being made and others considered. 

Broadened and diversified Commission membership.

BROUGHT TO FRUITION WORK BEGUN BY THE ORIGINAL COMMISSION

Guided adoption and implementation of Access to Justice Fee by BBO

Result: BBO properly implemented fee; Nearly $1.0 million projected in 12 months 

Strong support for the Special Advisor to the Trial Court on Access to Justice Initiatives, helping her with LAR, TIG grant, Berkman Center and self-help center at Brooke Courthouse. 

Strong support for the Boston Bar Association’s Task Force on Expansion of the Right to Counsel in Civil Cases.

Results: Right to counsel expanded for juveniles in parole revocation hearings or when aging out, and to prospective wards in guardianship proceedings. 

PRO BONO INITIATIVES

Proposed SJC annual pro bono commitment recognition awards and letters

Result: Under consideration at SJC Pro Bono Committee 

Proposed to sponsor a pro bono conference for corporate counsel to encourage more pro bono. 

SPOKE TO ACCESS TO JUSTICE ISSUES

Spoke out on cuts in the FY 2011 budget of the judiciary, MBA support for LAR and Citizens Bank plan to cut IOLTA interest rates. 

WORKING GROUP ACCOMPLISHMENTS 

Delivery of Legal Services

The Social Services Agency Workers Project expanded use of www.masslegalhelp.org

Caused creation of law student clinical program at NESL for review of prisoner petitions. 

Website and Technology

Provided catalyst for partnership of legal services programs, the courts and the Commission in successful pursuit of $150,000 LSC TIG grant to develop online interviews to produce pleadings in family law cases and advance use of  e-filing.  A second grant is likely. 

Recruited creative industrial design firm to explore consumer’s perspective on seeking access. 

Formed loose coalition, facilitated by Harvard’s Berkman Center, to improve web tools used by self-representing litigants. 

Administrative Justice 

Joined with EOHHS to improve notices denying benefits and supported better language access plans for all Executive Branch agencies. 

Court Practice Working Groups 

All three court practice working groups have advanced their court’s acceptance of LAR. 

Surveyed Housing Court access-to-justice practices.

Improving Probate and Family Court forms for use by self-represented litigants. 

SPECIAL ADVISOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS 

Issued Preliminary Report on Access to Justice in the Trial Court. 

Harvard’s Berkman Center on Internet and Society prepared, pro bono, a report on best practices for Massachusetts to adopt for using technology to improve access to justice. 

Opened first Consumer Information Center in the lobby of the Brooke Courthouse in Boston. 

Planned training for non-judicial personnel of the Trial Court using Manual for Clerks and other Non-Judicial Personnel for assistance to self-representing litigants. 

SPECIAL PLANNING COMMITTEE ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Met with regional leaders and MLRI to discuss critical current issues. 

Southeast Region:  Merging two regional programs to increase efficiency.

West-Central Region: Working toward consolidation of three programs.

Mass Law Reform: Pursuing its prior plan to increase fund raising and hire permanent executive director to maintain traditional MLRI role. 

Northeast Region and East Region: Explored pending issues.



The Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission was originally created by an order of the Supreme Judicial Court in February 2005, based on a proposal submitted by the Massachusetts State Planning Board for Civil Legal Services.  The Commission had 21 members and was chaired by Herbert P. Wilkins, Chief Justice (ret.) of the Supreme Judicial Court.  

The Commission issued four annual reports and one report based on a series of hearings.  

The Commission had five major purposes: 

To encourage achievement of the vision, mission, core values and core capacities adopted in September 2003 by the Massachusetts State Planning Board for Civil Legal Services;

To convene periodic Access to Justice Conferences and encourage participation in the conferences by members of a broadly-defined equal justice network so that better coordination of all parts of the effort to produce equal justice for all are more effective, more efficient and more successful;

To develop and maintain a comprehensive understanding of the civil legal services provided to low-income people in the Commonwealth, to promote widespread understanding of civil equal justice, to address laws and regulations that affect meaningful access to justice and to report periodically to the Supreme Judicial Court on the status of access to justice in the Commonwealth;

To provide a neutral forum in which important policy issues affecting access to civil justice for low-income people in the Commonwealth can be discussed and brought to agreement among a broad cross-section of providers, funders, clients, bar leaders and other interested parties;

To consider important issues concerning the delivery of civil legal services, including controversial issues that are not being resolved by consensus, and to make recommendations for reforms, new initiatives and appropriate resolutions.


The Supreme Judicial Court reconstituted the Commission at the end of the five years specified in the original order.  In February 2010 the initial Commission turned over its pending business to the reconstituted Commission.  A brief summary of the pending business follows:

COMMISSION ISSUES FOURTH ANNUAL REPORT


The Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission submitted its Fourth Annual Report to the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court on September 15, 2009.   The report briefly summarizes the activities of the Commission from July 2008 to June 2009. 

During the year, important positive steps supported by the Commission were taken on access to justice.  Highlights include the report of the Boston Bar Association Task Force on Expanding the Civil Right to Counsel, the final report of the Court’s Steering Committee on Self-Represented Litigants, appointment by Chief Justices Marshall and Mulligan of a Special Advisor for Access to Justice Initiatives, enactment of the Uniform Probate Code, amendment of the Uniform Small Claims Rules, and adoption of a Standing Order permitting Limited Assistance Representation statewide.

The Commission, recognizing the financial needs facing providers of legal services for the poor, proposed a rule change that would add $50 to each lawyer’s annual registration statement unless the lawyer affirmatively opted out of the payment.  The Commission also studied the impact of regionalization on the delivery system and discussed possible removal of some restrictions from Legal Services Corporation grants.

In addition, the Commission is examining two often-overlooked components of the Commonwealth’s access-to-justice system: the activities of thousands of social service agency workers who provide legal information to low-income clients; and the role of administrative agencies of the Executive Branch, which administer and determine the legal rights of tens of thousands of low-income individuals.

THE COMMISSION SEEKS SJC APPROVAL OF $50 ADD-ON FEE FOR LEGAL ASSISTANCE

The Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission has submitted a proposal to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court requesting an amendment of S.J.C. Rule 4:03.  The proposal, dated February 12, 2009, would add a $50 fee to the lawyers' annual registration with the Board of Bar Overseers.  The added fee would be used to fund legal services to people of low income and programs designed to improve the administration of justice, especially for needy Massachusetts residents.  The fee is voluntary; a lawyer who does not wish to pay the fee can opt-out. 

The proposal is supported by the two largest bar associations in the state.  Letters from Edward W. McIntyre, President of the Massachusetts Bar Association, and Kathy B. Weinman, President of the Boston Bar Association, reporting the strong support of both organizations are attached to the proposal.  

supplemental letter concerning technical matters was submitted to the SJC Rules Committee by Commission Chair Herbert P. Wilkins.


CURRENT COMMISSION PROJECTS AND ACTIONS

Along with the proposed add-on described above, current Commission projects include an examination of the role of social service agency workers in providing legal information and assistance on the legal problems of agency clients, an exploration of access to justice issues in the Executive Branch agencies and preparing for possible legal services delivery system changes if the LSC entity restriction is removed by Congress.

In October 2008 the Commission adopted a resolution in support of the civil Gideon recommendations of the report of the Boston Bar Association's Task Force on Expanding the Civil Right to Counsel.

In January the Commission noted with approval the Final Report and Recommendations of the SJC Steering Committee on Self-Represented Litigants.  Many of the recommendations, developed through the work of the Committee, had been supported in the Commission's Report on Barriers to Access to Justice.

In June 2009, Chief Justices Marshall and Mulligan appointed Hon. Dina Fein, a member of the Commission, to the new position of Special Advisor on Access to Justice.  The Commission hopes to work closely with Judge Fein as she coordinates judicial resources on access to justice issues.

COMMISSION HISTORY

In 2006-2007 the Commission took testimony at four hearings regarding barriers to access to justice in the Commonwealth.  The hearings were held in Springfield, New Bedford, Lawrence and Boston.  In June 2007 the Commission filed with the Supreme Judicial Court its report and recommendations based on the barriers identified by witnesses.  Between November 2007 and March 2008 the Commission met with the Chief Justices of all the Trial Court Departments, received their written and oral comments and discussed the findings of the report with them. 

The Commission has also issued four annual reports.  The Third Annual Report, for the year ended June 2008, describes the meetings with the Chief Justices and the other activities of the Commission.

 


 
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