Legal services advocates came out in force for yesterday’s hearing in front of the House Judiciary Hearing for HB 106, a bill proposing to raise court filing surcharge fees to fill the funding gap created by severe shortfalls in IOLTA revenues (a major funding source for Maryland Legal Aid and other legal services programs around the state).
“The judiciary supports this bill,” Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell told the committee. “Right now we’re not meeting the demands of poor litigants who can’t afford a lawyer. Only about 25 percent of them have access to a lawyer, in spite of increased efforts to get lawyers to support access to justice through pro bono and contributions. Lawyers have been doing their part. We’re here to urge you to provide stable resources to legal services.”
District Court Chief Judge Ben Clyburn, vice chair of the Access to Justice Commission (created by Bell), told the committee that the commission “strongly” supports the bill to fill the funding gap.
Legal Aid executive director Wilhelm Joseph said that Maryland has 1.5 million residents who fall below the official poverty line. “Many are the new poor who are ashamed, confused and embarrassed—and totally unprepared—to deal with civil legal issues,” Joseph said. “We are a charitable organization—in this country, civil access to justice is dispersed by charity—so we must solicit and beg for funding to serve our constituents in every jurisdiction that you represent. We’re asking that you help the Maryland Legal Services Corporation to help us help your constituents.”
Andrew Jay Graham, a principal in the Baltimore law firm Kramon & Graham and a leader of the Equal Justice Council (Legal Aid’s private bar fundraising arm), told the committee that poor people need lawyers, but are unable to pay for them. “So they get their problems resolved other ways that aren’t good for society,” he said. “In 2009, Maryland lawyers contributed more money to Legal Aid than in any previous year. Legal Aid is a tremendous law firm and everyone on its staff is extremely dedicated and underpaid, handling between 50,000 and 60,000 cases a year. We urge you to pass this bill.”
Maryland State Bar Association president-elect Tom Murphy told the committee that the 24,000-lawyer organization supports the bill. “The time and donations to legal services made by our members are tremendous,” he said. “But legal services needs a stable funding source. This bill is the only rational answer to the problem.”
Also testifying in favor of the bill at the hearing was Legal Aid supervising attorney Harbour Partesotti, who gave a front-line perspective of what civil legal services means to elderly clients helped by the Long Term Care Assistance Project (she told the committee about a sick, elderly client who was threatened with eviction from her nursing home until Legal Aid intervened). Also testifying were MLSC executive director Susan Erlichman, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge (and MLSC board member) Pam White, Howard County Circuit Court Judge Diane Leasure, and Access to Justice Commission executive director Pam Ortiz.
A strong showing of legal services staffers attended the hearing, included those from Legal Aid, the Women’s Law Center, Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers’ Service, the Homeless Persons Representation Project, the House of Ruth and Mid-Shore Pro Bono.
Next week, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee will hold a hearing on the companion bill, SB 248, at 1 p.m. on Thursday.