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July 18, 2003

Mass. Offers More Proof That Self-Help Centers Are Better Than Free Lawyers

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 9:16 am


Although there was good news out of Massachusetts yesterday for legal aid lawyers and clients, the drama suggests once again that we need a better approach than offering free lawyers to consumers, if we are serious about solving the crisis in access to legal services.


As noted by MyShingle.com, which pointed to this AP article  from the Hampshire Daily Gazette (7/17/03), lawmakers in the Massachusetts House voted yesterday to restore the $7.6 million budget of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the state’s main program for providing civil legal aid to the poor, and to restore $501,000 for another program that provides legal aid to the mentally ill. According to today’s Boston Globe, the State Senate agreed to go along with the House in order restore the funds by overriding vetoes by Gov. Mitt Romney.


Romney had used his line item veto to remove legal aid moneys. As the AP article explained :



“Romney defended his legal aid vetoes, saying the state simply can’t afford the programs in the midst of the ongoing fiscal crunch. The cuts were needed to help close a $200 million hole in the Legislature’s final budget, he said.


“‘One looks at which functions state government provides that are absolutely essential … and providing funding for civil lawsuits struck us as not being absolutely essential,‘ he said Wednesday. ‘It’s a good thing to do. It’s a nice thing to do. But it’s not essential.'”


Romney had also noted that “This would be a great place for firms to focus their pro bono work, which is doing civil litigation for the poor.”  The presidents of four legal associations wrote a letter to House Speaker Thomas Finneran urging him to override the vetoes before the summer break. (go here and click on “News Releases” to locate the bar leaders’ 7/17/03 letter).


Just three days ago (7/15/03), I argued that Pro Bono is Not the Answer to the Access Problem.  Now, I’m more sure than ever.   If legal aid funds for the poorest and most vulnerable Americans are in jeopardy in Massachusetts, they will be in grave danger across the nation, as each state faces its budget deficits.   Despite Romney’s flip remark about pro bono work filling in the gap, it’s clear that there will never be enough volunteer legal assistance to serve even a tiny fraction of the needs of the poor, and such programs don’t even try to help the scores of millions of moderate income consumers who are underserved by, or shut out of, our judicial and legal system.


However, with relatively modest public or private resources, we could establish Self-Help or Pro Se Centers in each community, and provide statewide internet access to forms and information that would allow most Americans — including many of the poorest consumers — to handle most of their everyday legal needs themselves (especially with added “unbundled” assistance from attorneys, as needed).



  • I do not have current figures, but in 1997, with an annual budget of $200,000, over 400 persons a day used the Maricopa County Superior Court’s Self-Service Center in Phoenix, and 150 more people per day logged onto their website, which offered access to over 400 documents and forms that are available at the Center. Presiding Judge Robert D. Myers has said that there has been a “tremendous” improvement in court operations since the Center opened.

Because the Massachusetts Bar Association was so anxious to see the legal aid funds restored, I looked at its site to see what else MBA is doing to help make the legal system more accessible.  My expectations were raised, after learning that Article XI of the Constitution of the commonwealth of Massachusetts provides:



“Every subject of the Commonwealth ought to find a certain remedy, by having recourse to the laws, for all injuries or wrongs which he may receive in his person,property or character. He ought to obtain right and justice freely, and without being obliged to purchase it; completely, and without any denial; promptly, and without delay; conformably to the laws.”


But, my hopes that MBA would be a part of the solution rather than the problem were dashed.   Here are some of the reasons:



  1. There has apparently been very little progress since the Probate and Family Court Department of the State judiciary issued its 1997 Pro Se Committee Report, Pro Se Litigants: The Challenge of the Future (Oct. 29, 1997, 85 pp. pdf format), and asked for the cooperation and assistance of bar leaders.  A search of the MBA’s large cache of documents, revealed only 3 from the Access to Justice Committee containing the term pro se, all of which were members-only Minutes, and the last of which was created in February, 2001.  A site-wide search for the term “self-help” returned similar dismal results.
  2. The Pro Se Committee Report made many recommendations, including creating educational materials for pro se litigants and court staff, plus Self-Help facilitators, hotlines, simplified forms, unbundling efforts, and more.  The response of bar President Edward P. Ryan, Jr., to these recommendations, can be seen in his article Educating pro se litigants on the need for counsel.   As suggested by its title, the article asserts that self-represented litigants (plus judges and court employees) must be educated so they understand that every litigant needs a lawyer.    A program would be established, that would match pro se litigants with attorneys who would charge them for their services (but, maybe a little less than usual, if necessary to get the business).  Amazingly, Ryan also complained that the self-represented got too much help at court, giving the “represented” clients the impression that they too might not need lawyers the next time they are at court. [As Dave Barry would say, I am NOT making this up.]
  3. Meanwhile, MBA is seeking Nominations for its annual Access to Justice Awards.  Explaining that “These awards offer a unique opportunity to recognize the efforts and achievements of MBA members for their public-service contributions,” the Notice states that Nominations may be submitted in various categories — every single one of which relates to an attorney acting as a salaried or pro bono lawyer or prosecutor, and none of which involves helping to improve access or services for those consumers wishing to represent themselves or to handle their own legal matters.
  4. The MBA’s list of sponsored legislation for the 2003-2004 session has more than three dozen entries, none of which appears aimed at helping the self-represented or otherwise improving access to the judicial system.
  5. An article with the promising title Local attorney works to make Probate and Family Court a more welcoming place (MBA Law Journal, by Krista Zanin, posted July 1, 2003) tells the story of an attorney who received an MBA Community Service Award through the Hampshire County Bar Association for her work beautifying the hallways of the court with a quilt and other artwork.

There is no reason to believe that Massachusetts is any worse than the majority of States when it comes to the approach that bar leaders are taking toward solving the access crisis — only lawyer-centered options are being pursued.    Such remedies will fall far short of serving the needs and preferences of potential consumers of legal services.   Consumer and their advocates should be taking their demands and arguments directly to legislatures and judicial administrators, and seeking private charitable funding, to bring the benefits of Self-Help legal services to the broad public.  Scarce pro bono and legal aid resources could then be used to help consumers unable to use self-help resources to assert their legal rights and needs. 

9 Comments

  1. Romney’s plans to require pro bono services for all attorneys doing work for the commonwealth was documented in last weeks Mass Lawyers Weekly. With 98% of attorneys doing work for the state residing in Boston, I wonder how Romney proposes to service the remainder of the state. If the CPCS workload is any indication of the magnitude of work outside of Boston and Middlesex (which extends out to Natick to the west), 2/3 of the work is not in Boston or Cambridge.

    The image of a Boston white shoe attorney appearing in Dudley Mass to defend the rights of a child is one that I expect will never materialze. Civil actions, which Romney suggess are not essential, involve custody issues and protection of children — I cannot imagine these being optional in any thinking person’s value system.

    The mjor problem with Romney’s idea of pro bono is that the legal skills of a bond attorney do not permit him or her to adequately represent the indigent. Indigent people do not need the services of an attorney to structure bond arrangements, and these attorneys are often specialized so that they do not know how to do work in other areas. Taking on a case that they have no expertise to handle is malpractice. It will be interesting…

    Comment by Thomas Workman — August 10, 2003 @ 11:20 pm

  2. Romney’s plans to require pro bono services for all attorneys doing work for the commonwealth was documented in last weeks Mass Lawyers Weekly. With 98% of attorneys doing work for the state residing in Boston, I wonder how Romney proposes to service the remainder of the state. If the CPCS workload is any indication of the magnitude of work outside of Boston and Middlesex (which extends out to Natick to the west), 2/3 of the work is not in Boston or Cambridge.

    The image of a Boston white shoe attorney appearing in Dudley Mass to defend the rights of a child is one that I expect will never materialze. Civil actions, which Romney suggess are not essential, involve custody issues and protection of children — I cannot imagine these being optional in any thinking person’s value system.

    The mjor problem with Romney’s idea of pro bono is that the legal skills of a bond attorney do not permit him or her to adequately represent the indigent. Indigent people do not need the services of an attorney to structure bond arrangements, and these attorneys are often specialized so that they do not know how to do work in other areas. Taking on a case that they have no expertise to handle is malpractice. It will be interesting…

    Comment by Thomas Workman — August 10, 2003 @ 11:20 pm

  3. Any pro bono requirement that limits the lawyer’s choice as to how, where and when to provide free legal services is asking for big problems and probably bringing little benefit to the low income client.   Adequate training is a must, along with mentoring, and coordinators around the state to maximize the effectiveness of the program.   Quite a mess.  Could you send me the URL for the Mass. Lawyer Weekly?  thanks, David

    Comment by David Giacalone — August 11, 2003 @ 8:13 am

  4. Any pro bono requirement that limits the lawyer’s choice as to how, where and when to provide free legal services is asking for big problems and probably bringing little benefit to the low income client.   Adequate training is a must, along with mentoring, and coordinators around the state to maximize the effectiveness of the program.   Quite a mess.  Could you send me the URL for the Mass. Lawyer Weekly?  thanks, David

    Comment by David Giacalone — August 11, 2003 @ 8:13 am

  5. Good blog

    Comment by Anelia — September 2, 2005 @ 2:06 am

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    Comment by Anelia — September 2, 2005 @ 2:06 am

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  9. […] [pre-launch posting; we hope to finish construction and “go public” soon] The Supreme Court of Mississippi has issued an Order Establishing The Mississippi Access to Justice Commission (via HALT eJournal, Aug. 28, 2006).   According to the Court’s press release, (June 29, 2006), the Commission is “comprised of business and community leaders, clergy and representatives from all three branches of government,” and it will seek to ”develop a unified strategy to improve access to justice for the poor.”       With half of its population at or below the Federal poverty level, Mississippi has long had a serious crisis in access to justice.   Despite that crisis, the State has apparently relied solely on legal services organizations (with no direct state funding) and lawyer pro bono efforts to provide better access for the poor.  For example, Mississippi is not included in the NCSC directory of Self-Help/Information Centers and Resources, and the State has a “No links” designation on The Pro Se Law Center’s directory of court-based services and websites for self-represented litigants.  Despite the Access Commission’s promise to bring together “creative people” to develop new and creative access solutions, SHLEP is concerned that their exclusive focus will be on providing free or low-cost lawyers for the poor — an approach that is doomed to fall far short of the Commission’s goal (see the discussion here and there at ethicalEsq).  Why are we worried?  Neither the Court’s Order, nor its Press Release, mentions self-help programs as possible solutions, despite an extensive, seven-point list of the Commission’s mission and tasks.  The omission seems quite telling, because the Mississippi Order prominently points to Resolution 23 [”Leadership to Promote Equal Justice’] of the Conference of Chief Justices, to explain its own “primary leadership responsibility to preserve and protect equal justice and take action necessary to ensure access to the justice system for those who face impediments they are unable to surmount on their own.”  Resolution 23 “encourages individual members in their respective states to establish partnerships with state and local bar organizations, legal service providers, and others to:  1. Remove impediments to access to the justice system, including physical, economic, psychological and language barriers; and […]

    Comment by SHLEP: the Self-Help Law ExPress » Blog Archive » message to Mississippi Access Com’n: “think self-help” — August 29, 2006 @ 6:58 pm

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