Q&A with NH Legal Assistance Executive Director Sarah Mattson Dustin
When Sarah Mattson Dustin took over as executive director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance in November, it was a return home. She had first clerked at the civil legal aid organization in 2003 while attending Harvard Law School. She served at NHLA from 2006 to 2017 as a law clerk, staff attorney, project director and policy director. She most recently served as policy director of the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation.
A New Hampshire native who lives in Contoocook with her husband and two children, Mattson Dustin’s experience with the state budget process will be called on in the coming months. Governor Sununu’s latest budget proposal cut state funding to NHLA from $1.2 million in 2018-19 to $650,000 in 2019-20. The Judicial Council had recommended $1.5 million in annual funding. State funding represents as much as 15 percent of NHLA’s annual budget.
“This would be a staggering, to-the-bone cut that would reduce NHLA’s state funding below where it was in the depth of the Great Recession,” Mattson Dustin said last month. If not restored, the cuts would impact a wide range of services, federal grant matches and potential staff loss. NHLA served more than 6,600 clients in 2018.
She talked to NH Business Review recently about the road ahead for NHLA and what makes it an underappreciated yet important force in the state.
Q. Why did you go directly to New Hampshire Legal Assistance after Harvard Law School?
A. I went to law school completely certain that I wanted to practice in New Hampshire, but I didn’t know that I wanted to be a legal aid lawyer. I spent the summer after my first year as an intern in NHLA’s Manchester office. I still remember many of the cases I worked on — the experience opened my eyes to the many barriers that face low-income and elderly people who are navigating our civil justice system. Legal aid helps level the playing field so that everyone can get a fair shake, and it’s a privilege to have a hand in that. I spent a year after law school clerking for the federal court in Concord and then was lucky enough to return to NHLA with the support of a Skadden Fellowship.
Q. What would readers be surprised to learn about NHLA?
A. Most people don’t realize that there’s a difference between indigent defense — primarily provided in the Granite State by the New Hampshire Public Defender, one of the nation’s finest indigent defense programs — and civil legal aid, which is what we do at NHLA. You don’t have a right to a lawyer in civil cases, even those that affect your most basic needs, like housing, healthcare or safety from an abusive partner.
Those who do know about us don’t always understand how small we are and how big the need is. They are surprised to hear how often we have to say “no” to eligible clients, with about 15 people every week either given really limited services or turned away altogether.
Q. Do you believe the Legislature will restore the proposed budget cuts?
A. Over the years, NHLA has enjoyed enduring bipartisan support. That includes the last biennium, when Governor Sununu included $1.5 million for NHLA in his budget proposal. Our funding has rarely been politicized, and we’ll be looking to legislators from both sides of the aisle to ensure that NHLA can continue to provide our essential services.
During the Great Recession, our program shrank dramatically, including closing offices in Littleton and Nashua. We served thousands fewer people and still have not completely rebuilt. That’s why we know exactly what will happen if the Legislature doesn’t prioritize funding for civil legal aid. But the core of what we do has not changed: we help deliver on the fundamental American process of justice for all, and we use the law as a tool to alleviate the harmful effects of poverty.
Q. How has the organization evolved since you first clerked there in 2003?
A. Sixteen years ago, I was part of a new generation of legal aid lawyers in New Hampshire. Now we have another new generation, and I’m proud that they push me and the program to continue evolving and improving. We are constantly looking for new ways to serve our clients, such as by partnering with “family justice centers” that put legal aid advocates on-site at locations where domestic violence survivors can meet with law enforcement, crisis center staff, health care providers, and others.
Q. How has the demand for NHLA services changed over the past decade?
A. The demand is constant and overwhelming, but it does change. During the Great Recession, lots of people needed help with preventing foreclosures and accessing unemployment insurance benefits. In today’s astonishingly tight rental market, preventing homelessness is more important than ever, because it’s even harder for someone to recover their footing after becoming homeless.
We’re also observing new trends resulting from New Hampshire’s aging population, such as increased elder financial abuse and exploitation. The opioid crisis affects our clients in myriad ways.
Q. How can the public help?
A. We encourage our colleagues in the private bar to connect with our partners at the New Hampshire Bar Association’s pro bono program, which can help them improve access to justice by representing someone who can’t afford a lawyer. We’re grateful for financial contributions to our annual fundraising effort, the New Hampshire Campaign for Legal Services (nh-cls.org). And of course, this year, everyone can call their legislators and urge them to support the Judicial Council’s recommended budget of $1.5 million for civil legal aid.