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For Release
Wednesday, May 16, 2000

Contact: Frank Conte
Director of Communications
617-573-8050

New Study: Unmet legal needs among the poor less than one in 10

A new study released today by the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University finds that less than one in ten of the legal needs of the poor in Massachusetts is unmet.

The BHI study, Just Services: Balancing the Scales of Legal Services Funding in Massachusetts, is the result of a two-year analysis by a team of economists, psychologists and lawyers.

"Our analysis concluded that relatively few low-income citizens with actionable legal grievances in Massachusetts are going without legal assistance," said David Tuerck, BHI Executive Director and Chairman and Professor of Economics at Suffolk University. "The Commonwealth already offers a wide array of free and readily-available legal options for low-income residents. More people could be helped if the Commonwealth used existing resources more effectively."

The report's results contradict claims by the Boston Bar Association (BBA) and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) that six in ten legal needs of the poor are unmet.

The Commonwealth funds MLAC grants to organizations that provide legal assistance to low-income residents. MLAC currently receives $7.53 million annually from the state. MLAC seeks to more than triple this amount by increasing funding in $6 million annual increments until it reaches $25.53 million in FY 2003.

The BBA's claim that six out of ten needs go unmet is based on a one-page MLAC document that tabulates calls from persons who were turned away by MLAC-funded grantees. The MLAC document lacks credibility because it fails to provide any indication that its authors followed standard survey-research methods. In particular it does not indicate whether:

• persons inquiring about legal services were screened for their eligibility for legal assistance or for the legitimacy of their problems,

• the tabulations excluded duplicate calls by the same caller with the same problem,

• the margin of error was sufficiently small to justify confidence in the results, or

• the calls were tabulated by trained survey researchers.

The MLAC survey – and previous, more comprehensive surveys relied upon to substantiate claims of vast unmet legal needs – suffer from the following weaknesses:

(1) They are based on too broad a definition of a legal need. For example, counted as legal needs are:

• lacking phone service,

• having a roach problem,

• having an unwanted business such as a liquor store in the neighborhood,

• having to take a drug test on the job, or

• feeling dissatisfied with an employer.

(2) The surveys make no effort to determine whether a person indicating a legal need is willing to invest the personal time and effort (e.g., gathering documents, testifying) that are required in obtaining any legal remedy.

(3) The surveys ignore the fact that only a small fraction of the people surveyed (12% in one prominent study) list cost as the reason for not hiring a lawyer.

(4) There is the presumption that every need requires a lawyer, ignoring the wide array of free alternative resources available, particularly from government.

In addition to the foregoing, there is the question of whether legal-services attorneys use state funds to pursue policy goals that lie outside their mission. Examples include lobbying for paid parental leave or for relaxing workfare requirements for welfare recipients. Such activities led Congress in 1996 to prohibit the federally-chartered Legal Services Corporation from supporting class action suits or lobbying.

On the basis of its findings, BHI recommends that, before increasing MLAC funding, the Commonwealth:

• commission a new survey to reassess the incidence of unmet legal needs among the poor in Massachusetts;

• impose guidelines on the receipt of MLAC funds similar to the 1996 federal guidelines imposed by Congress on the LSC; and

• enhance public oversight and disclosure of MLAC-funded activities.

The Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that applies state-of-the-art economic methods to the analysis of current public policy issues. The study's overview is available at http://www.beaconhill.org/BHIStudies/ls52000.html. To obtain the full study, phone 617-573-8750.

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Posted: 5/16/00
Revised on 02-Jul-2003 3:21 PM
Webmaster: Frank Conte
e-mail:
fconte@beaconhill.org

2000-2003 Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy Research at Suffolk University, All Rights Reserved.