For the student attorneys at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, the nation’s oldest legal services organization, a victory in court is always a reason to celebrate. But recently, HLAB student attorneys Jennifer Ramos ’13 and Shira Hoffman ’13 achieved a legal victory with a type of case work that students at HLAB don’t often do — one that had the potential to substantively affect many of the low-income clients HLAB serves. Supervised by clinical instructor Stephanie Goldenhersh, Ramos and Hoffman filed an amicus brief in support of a low-income mother in Worchester, MA in an appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court of a decision about the child support payments she was receiving from her children’s father.
“While the majority of the legal work we do involves direct representation of clients in court, this case was a different kind of work because it involved writing an amicus brief,” said Ramos. An amicus brief is a “friend of the court” brief submitted to the court by a third party with a strong view on the subject matter of the case but who is not actually involved in it.
According to Ramos, the Massachusetts child support calculation mechanism at issue is very straightforward: “Basically you plug in the income of one parent in one column and the other parent in the other column, and the calculation sheet generates a number.” However, sometimes this cut-and-dry mechanism can overlook nuances in the parents’ financial situations, which can result in an unfair decision. This seemed to be what happened in this case.
By the time the case reached Ramos’ and Hoffman’s desks, it had already gone through a trial and the Court of Appeals. “We first heard about the case about a year and a half ago from the Community Legal Aid in Worchester,” Ramos said. Ruthie Withers, a staff attorney at Community Legal Aid, decided to bring the case to appeal after the judge refused to reconsider an inconsistency in the amount of child support being paid by the father on the grounds that his substantial overtime income could not be counted as regular income. “The ex-husband in this case had a lot of overtime pay and could afford to pay more,” Ramos said. “Sometimes overtime pay is highly variable, but in this case it was fairly consistent.”
Withers and the team at Community Legal Aid invited legal service providers from the Family Law Task Force, a state-wide coalition of family law legal services providers, to assist with the case. The HLAB students were happy to volunteer.
“We wanted to get involved for two reasons,” said Ramos, “first because it was a great learning experience to do a different type of advocacy, and second, because it was of substantive benefit to our clients.” The appeal centered on the inconsistency in the law about the standards that the judge should use in determining whether to modify the payment amount in a child support case. The brief emphasized the role that even small increases in child support can make for a family’s welfare, and underscored the need for consistency in determining these allocations.
The students cited research in the brief which indicated the significant impact that child support payments can have on a low-income family’s well-being. “Child support has been shown to reduce poverty by nearly 25 percent,” they wrote in the brief. “An extra $15 per week might enable a low-income family to buy expensive but necessary items such as winter coats and school supplies, it might allow a child to engage in enriching extracurricular activities such as soccer or other sports, or it might pay for a much-needed extra bag of groceries.”
The favorable ruling in this case may mean a brighter future ahead for indigent parents appealing unequal allocations of child support. “I am optimistic that [this case] is going to set a better guideline for judges to follow. Many judges don’t have much experience with poverty lawyering, and this case shows them that they can take into account overtime pay when determining child support allocations. They need to be more aware of the role that small amounts of money can have,” Ramos said.
The collaboration between HLAB and the Family Law Task Force has been a great benefit to the students, Ramos said. “It has been one of the best things we have access to, not just as students, but as real members of the legal service community. The partnership provides a great way to ask advice from more experienced lawyers about atypical cases,” said Ramos. This particular case was especially educational. “It’s a very different type of legal work, which invites a different set of skills like brief writing, coordinating with other providers, and learning to navigate the intricacies of appellate courts,” she said.
The students at HLAB plan to continue to work with the Family Law Task Force and to strengthen the relationship. Goldenhersh agreed that the collaboration reflected the powerful potential of HLAB’s student volunteers. “This partnership with the Family Law Task Force has been very important – we [at HLAB] are one of the largest legal services providers in the state, we just happen to be student-run,” she said. Working with the task force allows HLAB students to get involved in a different type of advocacy, to learn from experienced practitioners throughout the state, and to contribute knowledge gained through HLAB’s extensive work in family law to the group.
The case is more than just a chance for the law students to expand their experience working with poverty law. It also has tangible effects for families facing child-support disputes. For the family in this case, the outcome of HLAB’s involvement is a more equitable division of responsibility for their two children.
Contributing writer Ola Topczewska is a sophomore at Harvard College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.