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 wouldnt 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. Its far better to invest money now for legal aid than it is to bear the costs later.