Monthly Archives: April 2012

Volunteer lawyers needed for Pro Bono Day

For the sixth year, the Pro Bono Day clinic will be held Saturday, May 12, at Maryland Legal Aid’s Baltimore City Office, 500 East Lexington Street, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“Legal services organizations statewide continue to see marked increases in the number of individuals and families coming forward to request legal assistance in all areas of the law,” said Yoanna Moisides, Assistant Director of Advocacy for Training and Pro Bono at Legal Aid.  “Now more than ever, the demand for services far outweighs the resources available. ”

At the previous five Pro Bono Days, volunteer lawyers provided legal consultations to more than 500 people.  Attorneys are needed to provide brief, one-on-one consultations with attendees on a variety of civil matters, including housing law, government benefits, bankruptcy and consumer debt issues, expungements, wills, advance directives, elder law, criminal law, and divorce/custody/child support.  “This event cannot be a success without your assistance,” Moisides said.

To volunteer, complete the online Volunteer Registration form. More information is available from Moisides at 443-451-2810.

Pro Bono Day is sponsored by the Pro Bono and Access to Legal Services Committee of the Bar Association of Baltimore City, in conjunction with Maryland Legal Aid, Legal Services for the Elderly, the Maryland State Bar Association Young Lawyers Section, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, Pro Bono Resource Center and the Young Lawyers’ Division of the Bar Association of Baltimore City.

Baltimore Sun quotes Legal Aid expert

After a mother stabbed her 8-month-old daughter at a social services office, The Sun interviewed Maryland Legal Aid chief attorney Joan Little, who runs the Child Advocacy Unit in Baltimore.

The nonfatal assault on the foster child  raised questions about safety issues “where tense, emotional meetings between parents and their estranged children are routine,” wrote reporter Peter Hermann.

“‘These are difficult situations,’ said Little, an attorney whose staff represents children in welfare and neglect cases. ‘We want to promote family visits. It is so tough when a security situation like this happens.

“‘Normally, everyone would be supporting more contact between children and parents, and not restrained contact.’ The idea, she added, is for the ‘mother-baby visit to be personal enough that it can support the bonding that is supposed to be happening.

“Little, whose attorneys visit the East Biddle Street building at least once a week, said it would be counterproductive for a security guard to attend each meeting,” Hermann wrote. “But she would support it when violence is a part of a parent’s history.

“Little said she feels safe in the building. She said there is a metal detector at the entrance, and she has seen guards going through purses and checking IDs, though not every time.

“‘It’s not like airport security . . . ‘ she said. ‘I don’t feel that it’s a dangerous environment. But certainly we’re dealing with parents who have significant mental health problems, and significant drug problems. On any given day, anything can happen.'”

To read the entire article (behind a pay wall), click here.

Human rights lawyering comes to Maryland

From the Public News Service:

BALTIMORE – “Human rights lawyering” is a new mission for Maryland Legal Aid, which has been selected as a project partner to explore ways to integrate human rights arguments and international law into the everyday cases handled by Legal Aid.

Chief Counsel Shawn Boehringer says basic human rights are at the root of most of their legal work.

“The three most important needs of our clients are affordable housing, access to health care, and jobs that pay a living wage. We created this human rights framework to try to address those issues.”

Local staff will receive training and support to help them include human rights points in the cases they work on.

Project director Lauren Bartlett at American University says there are many international human rights conventions and treaties that have been approved by Congress and that could play a role in local court cases.

“A right to housing under the International Convention for Economic, Social, Cultural Rights. Or, talk about a right to housing might help a judge interpret state law.”

Maryland Legal Aid was one of two partners selected nationwide for the Local Human Rights Lawyering Project. It’s part of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law. The other partner is a legal aid bureau in southern Texas.

Court restores Social Security benefits for thousands

As many as 140,000 Americans nationwide will get their Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits restored as a result of an order issued by Judge Sidney H. Stein in a federal court in Manhattan on April 13, 2012.

The benefits in question date back to October 2006 and may total $1 billion.
The order is the culmination of more than five years of litigation in Clark v. Astrue – Docket No. 06-15521 (S.D.N.Y.) – a case brought against the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) challenging its practice of relying exclusively on outstanding probation and parole warrants as sufficient evidence that individuals are in fact violating a condition of probation or parole as a basis for denying them benefits.

Rather than check the facts of a case, SSA merely matched warrant databases against its records. When it found a probation or parole warrant in the name of someone who was receiving benefits, SSA checked with law enforcement and, if the law enforcement agency was not actively pursuing the individual, SSA would cut off that individual’s benefits. In March 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the agency’s practice of relying solely on outstanding probation or parole violation arrest warrants to suspend or deny benefits conflicted with the plain meaning of the Social Security Act.

Under Judge Stein’s order, the SSA is enjoined from denying or suspending benefits in this manner and must reinstate all previously suspended benefits retroactive to the date the benefits were suspended. The SSA has until June 12, 2012, to submit a plan setting forth its anticipated time frames for implementing the terms of the order.

For more, click here.

Don’t cut legal aid to the poor

A letter from the president of the Maryland State Bar Association to the Baltimore Sun:

An elderly mother faced foreclosure, an all too common problem for many. What was uncommon about this particular case was that the state of this mother’s financial affairs was not her own doing. The woman’s daughter refinanced her mortgage several times, forging signatures and pocketing thousands of dollars. Foreclosure proceedings were filed, and with notary acknowledgment of each signature, this unsuspecting mother came very near to losing her home.

This very scenario played out in Maryland. With legal help, the dispute was settled and the mortgage company paid the equity of the home at the time of the first refinancing. To navigate complex legal channels, the mother turned to the Legal Aid Bureau Inc. Legal Aid Bureau provides free legal services to Maryland’s most vulnerable residents including seniors, veterans, and the disabled.

Legal Aid Bureau is part of a network of providers funded in part by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). With LSC funding, the Legal Aid Bureau helped 58,000 of our impoverished neighbors, co-workers, and friends at no cost. Most cases were family law cases, but LSC funding goes toward other important groups, such as seniors who are illegally discharged from nursing homes and disaster victims recovering from tragedy.

In fact, LSC helps to meet the needs of 63 million qualifying Americans, including 22 million children, who live at or just above the poverty line. LSC funds providers in every state through competitive grants that helped close nearly one million cases benefiting 2.3 million people last year. While that number is impressive, research has shown (and legal aid advocates will tell you) that about half of applicants are turned away for lack of funding. Pro bono representation can help many, but the need is simply overwhelming.

When so many in Maryland and around our nation still out of work and without the resources to pay for unanticipated expenses, it is critically important that we keep clear the pathway to our court system. Hurdles before the courtroom can become insurmountable barriers for the poor and for those who were formerly considered to be the middle class. Despite all the help that LSC provides to legal aid groups like the Legal Aid Bureau, the organization’s funding is in danger. Congress is considering ways to cut the budget — a reasonable idea — but LSC should not face the budget ax. Imagine if those 58,000 Legal Aid Bureau clients were left without any kind of help.

Access to justice is more than just a slogan. There are very real consequences for an evicted family that cannot find remedy in the courtroom, or for a veteran denied benefits because no one could help with legal forms. Access to justice is one of our nation’s foundational promises, and LSC strives to make that promise a reality. Washington should cut wasteful government spending but protect programs like the LSC that give 58,000 of our neighbors their day in court every year.

Henry E. Dugan, Jr., Baltimore
The writer is president of the Maryland State Bar Association.

Legal Aid appoints human rights project director

Reena Shah,  a Maryland Legal Aid staff attorney with a long history of human rights advocacy, was appointed Legal Aid’s human rights project director.

The position was created with funds from The American University Washington College of Law as part of a new project by the law school’s Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. Legal Aid was recently chosen to be part of its Local Human Rights Lawyering Project, along with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.  The goal of  the project is to provide training, coaching and mentoring to help legal aid attorneys integrate a human rights framework into their daily work. Maryland Legal Aid recently adopted a human rights framework for its day-to-day advocacy in support of low-income Marylanders.

Shah has been a staff attorney in the Baltimore City Housing/Consumer Law Unit for the past four years. Her human rights work includes working with the Peace Corps in Nepal, where she raised funds for and managed the largest individual volunteer project in Peace Corp/Nepal’s 30-year history, and with the Southern Africa Human Rights Litigation Center, where she developed legal theories and arguments using international human rights law to expand women’s property rights.

Food stamps reduce poverty

From the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — A new study by the Agriculture Department has found that food stamps, one of the country’s largest social safety net programs, reduced the poverty rate substantially during the recent recession. The food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, reduced the poverty rate by nearly 8 percent in 2009, the most recent year included in the study, a significant impact for a social program whose effects often go unnoticed by policy makers.

To read the entire article, click here.