My Turn: Seventy years of fighting for justice in Western Massachusetts

  • JONATHAN L. MANNINA

Published: 6/3/2021 11:51:37 AM

In January 1951, a group of attorneys took a bold step in the fight for justice by forming the Legal Aid Society of Worcester. Local poverty law programs operating in Western Massachusetts, originally with funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity, joined together to form Western Mass. Legal Services in 1972. Western Mass. Legal Services later merged with the legal services organization in Worcester County to form Community Legal Aid, a nonprofit organization with over 140 staff that today provides free legal services to over 7,000 low-income and elderly clients a year across the five counties of Central and Western Massachusetts, impacting an estimated 18,000 of the region’s most vulnerable residents.

Remarkably, the roots of Community Legal Aid stretch back more than a decade prior to the Great Society and War on Poverty programs of the ’60s which were established to reduce the growing divide between the haves and have-nots in America. Indeed, its creation was visionary in its recognition of the profound need for access to justice for those in our communities unable to afford an attorney, and started a movement in Central and Western Massachusetts of providing access to justice that has continued for 70 years.

While those of modest means are appointed an attorney in criminal cases, the same is not true in civil legal cases. As a result, our low-income and elderly neighbors are often left to fight for life’s basic necessities — a place to live, protection from violence, and support for their families — all without the help of a lawyer. In Central and Western Massachusetts, Community Legal Aid exists to help people with these and other critical civil legal issues.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought into sharper focus just how essential legal aid is to the health and economic stability of many of our neighbors. In the span of just a few months in early 2020, Community Legal Aid saw a surge in the number of people seeking help to stave off eviction, access unemployment benefits, or apply for SNAP benefits (food stamps). Others needed our help because their children with disabilities were unable to participate in virtual schooling or because they faced increased family violence as they quarantined in their homes. Without our services, low-income and elderly tenants, workers, students, immigrants, domestic violence survivors, and veterans would be left to fight for their rights alone.

As Community Legal Aid celebrates its 70th anniversary, I am deeply grateful to the individuals who so many years ago had the foresight to take action to help us live up to the American ideal of justice for all. Their actions helped hundreds of thousands of our neighbors and their families over seven decades. I thank them and everyone in the Community Legal Aid family for the strength we have found together to continue to fight for justice for all.

Jonathan L. Mannina is the Esq. Executive Director of Community Legal Aid, which provides free civil legal services to the low-income and elderly residents of the Western and Central Massachusetts counties of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester for 70 years.


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