Senate Judiciary Committee passes filing-fee increase for legal services

The Maryland State Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last night voted 8 to 3 to approve SB 248, a bill that would increase civil court filing fees to fund civil legal services, which have been reeling from a drop on interest rates for lawyers’ trust accounts (used to fund legal help for low-income people).  Furthermore, the committee added no amendments to the bill.

“We expect  the bill to be before the full Senate within the next few days–possibly tomorrow, but more likely early next week,” said Susan Erlichman, executive director of the Maryland Legal Services Corporation, which funds 35 programs around the state (including Maryland Legal Aid, the largest). “We’re off to a strong start, and need to keep up the momentum as we move through the session.  We still have quite a way to go.”

Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts has decreased by 70 percent over the last 18 months, while the demand for legal services has soared during the economic crisis, she added. Interest rates are expected to remain low. The the proposed filing fee increases would still keep Maryland’s fees below those of surrounding states.

Current filing fee surcharges generate about $7.5 million for Maryland’s legal services programs. “With the proposed increases, that would go up to about $9.1 million–an amount that would avert further cuts to the programs, which averaged about 20 percent for the current fiscal year– restore lost funding, and preserve and stabilize the delivery system for the poor in every jurisdiction in Maryland,” Erlichman said.

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