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Lack Of Juvenile Court Lawyers Particularly Acute In Western Massachusetts

Greg Saulmon
The Republican
Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Ralph Gants

The top judge in Massachusetts says the lack of available lawyers in juvenile court is a constitutional emergency and that the problem is particularly serious in the western part of the state.

Under Massachusetts law, when the state removes a child from their parents' custody, they're entitled to a hearing within 72 hours.

But since March, roughly half of such cases in Hampden County, where Springfield is located, had to be postponed because there weren't enough lawyers available.

In a speech, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, Ralph Gants, called on the legislature to raise the attorney's hourly rate from $55 to $80.

The man in charge of the state agency that oversees the lawyers, Anthony Benedetti, said three factors explain the current situation in western Massachusetts.

First, he said, the number of removal cases has risen 57 percent statewide in the past four years.

"In any area of the law, if you saw such a dramatic increase, there would be challenges in getting people to do the work," he said. "In this specific situation, you have an hourly rate which is not high enough to attract enough attorneys to do the work. In addition, you're talking about western Mass., where the number of attorneys is less than in the eastern part of the state."

Benedetti said he's glad the chief justice is calling attention calling to the issue. 

But the dean of the Western New England College of Law, Eric Gouvin, said that while money will help, the challenge runs deeper.

"The emotional commitment to that kind of work takes a toll," Gouvin said. "It really is much more to it than just, 'Here's some more money.' You've got to have the constitution to go in and face these very difficult situations day in, day out."

Gouvin said he's spoken to the agency Benedetti leads about the possibility of allowing law students who have graduated, but not passed the bar, to take on such cases to help fill the void.

Correction: An original version of the story said Benedetti was glad the chief justice called on the legislature to raise the hourly rate for attorneys. Benedetti did not say that specifically, but did say the rate needs to be addressed.

Before joining New England Public Media, Alden was a producer for the CBS NEWS program 60 Minutes. In that role, he covered topics ranging from art, music and medicine to business, education and politics.
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