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The cause of providing more legal help for the poor got a boost Tuesday from those that may know best who gets represented in courtrooms and who doesn’t: lawyers. Well over 100 attorneys from private firms and non-profit agencies “walked to the hill” to lobby their state representatives and senators at the State House for more public funding of legal-aid services. Armed with facts, figures and pamphlets, they signed in with the Boston Bar Association and the Equal Justice Coalition — sponsors of the first-time event — to ask that $18 million additional funding be committed to legal aid over the next three years. The House has voted for an additional $1.5 million in the fiscal 2001 budget, and the state Senate is expected to debate the issue as early as next week. “We have three lawyers, but there’s no way we can do it all,” said Laurie A. Martinelli, an attorney with the non-profit Health Law Advocates in Boston, which counsels people who have been denied health benefits. “We refer cases to legal-aid services all the time, so we need them to be strong and have the resources they need to help people.” Martinelli, and her legal community colleagues, sported name tags that read, “Fund Legal Aid” as they listened to instructions and encouragement before making their way down State House hallways to the legislators’ offices. “This will make a tremendous impact if you let them know you came today,” said Robert A. Sable, director of Greater Boston Legal Services. “The message is simple — as a lawyer and constituent, you know the importance of funding for legal aid.” Currently, the state’s contribution to legal aid to the poor is $7.5 million to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which serves as a funding agency for legal aid programs throughout the state. MLAC estimates that 54,000 low-income state residents — or three out of five people who seek legal help from legal service programs — “with legitimate civil legal problems were turned away in 1998.” But those figures, and a 1994 Temple University survey commissioned by the American Bar Association showing legal needs are not being met for as many as 230,000 low-income people in Massachusetts, are challenged in a report just released by a conservative think tank at Suffolk University. HELP IS HERE The Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy Research surveyed 100 households and concluded that most low-income citizens with actionable legal problems statewide are getting the legal help they need. BHI Director David Tuerck, a Suffolk economics professor, said Tuesday his group’s interpretation of survey responses offered a “more focused response as to what we considered actionable” circumstances. The Walk to the Hill event also had some on-the-spot detractors, as a pamphleteer for the Small Property Owners Association in Cambridge handed out leaflets chiding legal-service lawyers who defend tenants facing eviction for not negotiating “pay-back agreements after the tenants get back on their feet … Legal aid just ‘helps’ the tenant live rent-free and then skip out.” That didn’t deter the attorneys gathered at the State House as they prepared their lobbying sessions. “The mere fact that you are here sends a message out in this building that now is the time to really focus on this issue,” said BBA President Thomas E. Dwyer Jr., of the Boston firm Dwyer & Collora. And the Beacon Hill Initiative’s contentions didn’t hold sway for Wellesley attorney Ronald M. Davids, of the firm Davids & Schlesinger. “There are a lot of faces here that I don’t normally see at this kind of meeting, so I guess we struck a chord,” said Davids, who sits on the Greater Boston Legal Services board. “And I’ve seen first-hand that many more people want legal services than can get them.”

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