The Supreme Judicial Court [appointed] eight new members to the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission.
First established by the Supreme Judicial Court in 2005, the Commission seeks to improve access to justice for people who are unable to afford an attorney for essential civil legal needs, such as cases involving housing, consumer debt, and family law. Among other activities, the Commission coordinates with civil legal aid organizations to support their activities and develop new initiatives to address unmet needs. The Commission also works to increase the number of attorneys able to provide pro bono or limited assistance civil legal services and coordinates with the court system on initiatives that assist individuals to better understand and navigate civil legal proceedings.
Co-chaired by Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants and Susan M. Finegan, Esq., of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo, P.C., the Commission includes representatives from the court system, legal aid organizations, social service organizations, bar associations, law schools, businesses, and other stakeholders in the access to justice community.
“The Commission welcomes our new members and appreciates their commitment to serve on the Commission in addition to the important positions they already hold, and their dedication to making our justice system work effectively for all of the Commonwealth’s residents,” Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Gants said.
“We are pleased to have the opportunity to work with these new members, whose wide-ranging experience and knowledge will further strengthen our efforts to carry out the Commission’s mission,” said Attorney Finegan.
The eight newly appointed commissioners are:
- Esme Caramello, Clinical Professor and Faculty Director at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Harvard Law School;
- Hon. Fairlie Dalton, First Justice of the Northeast Housing Court;
- Sandra Gant, Trial Attorney, Norfolk Superior Court Trial Unit, Committee for Public Counsel Services;
- Richard Johnston, Chief Legal Counsel, Office of the Attorney General, and former WilmerHale partner;
- Jennifer Grace Miller, Counsel to the Massachusetts Senate, and former chief of the Government Bureau at the Office of the Attorney General;
- Susan Nagl, Executive Director of South Coastal Counties Legal Services;
- Anthony Owens, Clerk-Magistrate of the Dorchester Division of the Boston Municipal Court; and
- Mary Ryan, Partner, Nutter McClennen & Fish, and former president of the Boston Bar Association, former chair of the Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services, and former chair of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.
Over the past 13 years, the Commission has undertaken a broad number of initiatives to support and expand assistance for people in need of civil legal aid in the areas of consumer protection and debt, housing, employment, family law, immigration and asylum cases, among many others. Recent initiatives include the following:
- The Access to Justice Fellows program enlists senior attorneys and retired judges to volunteer their time for pro bono projects that support non-profit organizations or work with legal services to help people with civil cases such as indigent asylum-seekers or individuals facing eviction proceedings or bankruptcy. To date, more than 100 retired lawyers and judges have provided over 80,000 hours of pro bono service to 60 nonprofit entities through this program, which is managed by the Lawyers Clearinghouse.
- The Civil Appeals Clinic provides a weekly clinic for eligible litigants who are representing themselves at the Appeals Court in civil appellate court matters on a number of issues, ranging from housing to family law (and full representation for selected qualifying persons), in collaboration with the Volunteer Lawyers Project, participating law firms and legal services organizations, and the Clerk’s Offices of the Appeals Court and the Supreme Judicial Court.
- In 2016, the Justice for All project awarded the Commission a $100,000 grant to develop a strategic action plan for improving access to justice throughout the Commonwealth. In December of 2017 the Commission published a comprehensive Strategic Action Plan in collaboration with a wide range of representatives from the access to justice community. The grant was funded by the Public Welfare Foundation and administered by the National Center for State Courts.
- The Commission partnered with legal services organizations and Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the largest funding source for civil legal aid programs in the state, to win a second Justice for All grant to fund two new pilot projects to test innovative strategies for improving access to justice in the areas of consumer debt and housing.
- The Commission worked with the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance, along with the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and other stakeholders, to allocate $8.3 million in funding to support civil legal aid for victims of crime under the Federal Victims of Crime Act.