Affordable aid offered in family law Moderate-income clients served at reduced rates

November 03, 1993|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Staff Writer

A family law service for moderate-income residents has been expanded into Carroll County.

The Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service -- a nonprofit, statewide group of attorneys that also provides civil legal assistance for low-income residents -- began the Carroll County program in mid-October to help families with divorce, custody, adoption or visitation cases, said Winifred Borden, executive director.

The service group also expanded the program into Calvert, Caroline, Cecil, Charles, Garrett, Howard, Somerset and Worcester counties last month. The group was already providing similar services in Frederick, St. Mary's, Washington and Wicomico counties, Ms. Borden said.

The group has fulfilled 54 requests in those four counties from February to June of this year, she said.

"It was felt that there was a need and that the bar association would be responsive," Ms. Borden said, adding that the county bar association "has been responsive."

Westminster attorney William Marquette, who handles the attorney-referral list for Carroll County, agreed.

"I think that most lawyers in Carroll County have realized the need for people with low or moderate income to have access to legal services," he said.

The Carroll County bar association is too small to run such a referral service on its own, so the lawyers agreed to participate in the group's service for low-income residents three years ago, Mr. Marquette said.

That service, established when Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service was created in 1981, provides civil legal assistance free of charge to low-income residents throughout the state, Ms. Borden said.

"A group of lawyers in private practice realized the [state's] Legal Aid Bureau was not able to meet the needs for civil legal service," she said. "They raised the money from a variety of sources to fund the staff and coordinate the programs.

"It really was a grass-roots organization. State bar organization funding was not the impetus for it."

The group receives money from the Maryland Bar Association, contracts with the Legal Aid Bureau and private donations, Ms. Borden said.

Eleven Carroll County lawyers have volunteered to provide the reduced-fee service for moderate-income clients, said Ms. Borden, who declined to name them.

"We don't want clients contacting them directly," Ms. Borden said.

In comparison, about six county lawyers participate in the group's service for low-income residents, which is pro bono, Mr. Marquette said.

"I would think this [reduced-fee] program would be more attractive because it allows the attorney to recoup expenses for office overhead," he said. "Since there's a chance of getting some money in, more attorneys are willing to sign up."

Residents interested in the program call the group's toll-free number, Ms. Borden said.

A volunteer will interview them to determine financial eligibility, she said.

Program guidelines state that a family of two can earn no more than $17,375 and a family of three no more than $21,463 per year.

"The individual will be sent an affidavit and a financial form," Ms. Borden said. "Once they complete that, they will be matched with an attorney in their county who has agreed to handle the type of case they have."

Clients pay $25 to cover the service's administrative costs and a $200-to-$350 retainer to the lawyer, Ms. Borden said. The retainer covers the first 4 1/2 to 8 hours of work at $45 per hour, she said.

Clients pay an additional $45 per hour for cases that take longer, Ms. Borden said.

Individual attorneys negotiate with clients on whether further payments are to be made in a lump sum or installments, she said.

"We charge [the retainer] based on the nature of the case," Ms. Borden said. "An uncontested divorce with no children would probably be about $200. With children, it would probably be $350." Interviews with lawyers statewide determined the $45 hourly rate, she said.

"There had been another program nationally that charged $30 per hour," Ms. Borden said. "The attorneys were very unhappy with that rate, so the $45 figure was arrived at."

Carroll County family law attorneys charge about $90 to $150 per hour, Mr. Marquette said. "The fee is usually less than half."

The service is available from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 1-(800) 300-1009.

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