A judicial advisory commission has called for higher attorney dues and increased court filing fees to fund civil legal services, The Daily Record reported yesterday.
“The year-old Maryland Access to Justice Commission, [chaired by retired Court of Appeals Judge Irma S. Raker], did not state in its interim report by how much annual state bar fees should be increased,” the article said. “But the panel noted that, at $140 per year, the current dues Maryland lawyers pay is lower than the national average of $231.”
Maryland Legal Aid executive director Wilhelm Joseph, who serves on the commission, said, “access to justice on the civil side should be a community obligation. However, as we move to that point in time when it occurs, and hopefully it will, we have to address this justice gap in America. We have to go to every single conceivable source.”
To read the article, click here.
Maryland Legal Aid’s assistant director of advocacy for income security Peter Sabonis wrote a column in The Daily Record last week about the proposed dismantling of the public defender’s “Neighborhood Defender” office in northwest Baltimore. “It’s ironic and dispiriting to think that publicly funded criminal defense work made more efficient and effective by the positive relationships developed by defenders on the ground could be eliminated because of poisonous relationships at the top,” Sabonis wrote. “It’s also something we cannot afford.” To read the column, click here.
An article in the Easton Star-Democrat about a recent public hearing sponsored by the Maryland Justice Commission included comments by Upper Shore office staff attorney Rachel Wolpert. Both Wolpert and chief attorney Bill Leahy testified at the commission’s listening session held at the Wye River campus of Chesapeake College. “[Wolpert] said many low-income people do not have access to representation,” the article said. “Wolpert also said the area has an incredible need for interpreters.”
An editorial in this morning’s Washington Post urges conferees reconciling House and Senate bills to increase funding to the Legal Services Corp. (which funds Maryland Legal Aid) and end Congressional restrictions that tie the hands of civil legal programs that help the poor. “Tough economic times have led more poor–and newly poor–people to need legal help,” the editorial says. “The LSC has been grossly underfunded for years, and the amount of money it gets from private and non-federal government sources has been shrinking because of the recession. Fully funding the LSC and giving it as much flexibility as possible will help to ensure that the needy get help.”
To read the entire editorial, click here.
Last night, the Senate, by a vote of 71-28, passed the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS) bill (HR 2847), which provides $400 million for the Legal Services Corp. and removal of federal restrictions on state, local and private funds held by LSC grantees (including Maryland Legal Aid), excepting abortion-related and prisoner representation cases. The Senate funding level of $400 million is $40 million less than that provided by the House of Representatives in its bill passed earlier in the summer (and $10 million more than current funding). The House bill did not remove the restriction on non-LSC funds, but did remove the restriction banning LSC recipients from seeking attorneys’ fees. The Senate bill did not remove the attorneys’ fees restriction, but such fees could be sought in cases brought using non-LSC sources of funding if the Senate version is enacted into law. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who chaired a hearing last year on closing the justice gap, spoke on the Senate floor in support of the increase.
Last night, Maryland Legal Aid Housing/Consumer Law Unit senior attorney Louise Carwell (left) was presented with the Access to Justice Award by Women’s Law Center president Alex Strubing Paradise. The award recognizes Carwell’s nearly 25 years of helping vulnerable individuals in myriad consumer cases, including predatory lending and foreclosure. Other award recipients were Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Glendora Hughes, general counsel of the Maryland Commission on Human Relations .
“Louise is a recognized expert in foreclosure prevention and was involved in helping victims of predatory lending and individuals facing foreclosure years before the seriousness of the problem was recognized by others,” said Cheryl Hystad, Legal Aid’s director of advocacy. “She is one of a very small number of people who focused on foreclosure problems prior to 2007 and who worked in the trenches helping individuals and families keep their homes.”
Yesterday’s Capital (Annapolis) newspaper reported that foreclosure filings in Anne Arundel Co. are “far higher” than a year ago–and that Maryland Legal Aid “has seen a 64-percent increase in caseload over the same period one year before. Cheryl Hystad, the bureau’s director of advocacy, said a portion of that increase is the result of foreclosure cases, through landlord evictions, loss of health care coverage and other economy-related legal problems are all contributors,” the article said.
“Hystad said that, while legal aid is in demand for foreclosures, the bureau can only help those who meet certain qualifications. ‘We can only represent folks who are poverty-level and below,’ she said. ‘There are a lot of people who aren’t eligible for Legal Aid but still need the help.’”
The article also looked at proposed federal reforms and Congressional restrictions that prevent Legal Aid and other federally funded programs “from participating in class-action lawsuits, pursuing statutory attorneys’ fees and advocating for lending reform.”
“For example, the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, the only agency in the state that receives the federal legal-services funds, receives only about 20 percent of its funding from federal grants,” the article said. “Regardless of the fact that a small portion of its funds comes from the government, all of its funds fall under the federal restrictions.”
To read the article, click here.
Noting that the foreclosure crisis hasn’t peaked–and that according to the Brennan Center for Justice between 60 and 86 percent of homeowners facing foreclosure last year did so without the benefit of legal counsel–The Baltimore Sun today called for increasing funding for civil legal services.
“Expanding access to the courts for homeowners facing foreclosure could help stabilize troubled neighborhoods and arrest falling home values until the market recovers,” the editorial said. “Low-income and minority homeowners in areas targeted by subprime lenders were the most vulnerable, researchers reported, with up to 92 percent of them facing foreclosure proceedings without the advice of counsel.”
To read the editorial, click here.