Court surcharge proposed to fund legal aid services House bill would offset federal budget cuts

February 02, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

Advocates of legal aid for Maryland's poor are looking to the General Assembly for help in keeping their programs afloat in the wake of federal budget cuts that have reduced funding by millions of dollars.

A bill filed yesterday in Annapolis would raise money for such programs, including Legal Aid and the House of Ruth, by collecting a surcharge when civil cases are filed in district and circuit courts across the state.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, does not specify the amount of the extra charge, which would set by court officials. But Mr. Rosenberg and other supporters of the bill said surcharges of $5 in district court and $10 in circuit court could raise as much as $4.5 million, enough to cover the loss of federal funds.

Mr. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, said the bill "enables us to continue to provide access to the courts for people who otherwise would be without legal representation.

"Access to our justice system is a very important right. People shouldn't be denied that because of their economic status."

In drafting the bill, Mr. Rosenberg consulted with officials of Maryland Legal Services Corp., which dispenses funds to programs around the state for low-income clients.

Robert J. Rhudy, Maryland Legal Services' executive director, said Mr. Rosenberg's bill is the most promising option among those being explored to help pay for various legal services.

"In terms of something that would generate [significant] resources, this is it," Mr. Rhudy said.

"Right now, we are serving about 25 percent of the legal need around the state, it's a Band-Aid. Our impact will be limited without this assistance from the state."

Providers of legal services for the poor have been scrambling since Congress sharply reduced funding to many legal programs last year. Around the country, Legal Aid offices have been closed.

In Maryland, Mr. Rhudy said, Legal Aid offices in Howard and Montgomery counties have closed recently. Lawyers in other offices, who represent clients in landlord-tenant disputes, child custody cases and other matters, have been laid off, he said.

Mr. Rosenberg's bill proposes a surcharge to be added to the cost of filing a civil lawsuit. In Maryland, plaintiffs in a civil case pay a fee in circuit court of about $80. The fee to bring a case in district court usually is $10, or $5 for a small-claims matter.

VTC Even with a surcharge on top of those fees, Mr. Rhudy said Maryland's court costs would be reasonable compared with other states.

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