Legal Aid gets boost

Full-time operations will resume for first time since 1995

Agency for poor rebuilding

June 29, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Helped by $50,000 from Howard County government that becomes available Thursday, Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau will resume full-time operations in Howard for the first time since 1995 -- meaning 250 more county families served each year.

Four years ago, deep federal budget cuts eliminated nearly a third of the agency's funds, forcing closure of the Montgomery County office for nearly three years as well as cutbacks in Howard.

This year, the Howard County Council approved the funds, which will be matched by the bureau.

Legal aid plans more services in Baltimore County, too, thanks to an extra $25,000 from County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's administration, said statewide legal aid executive director Wilhelm H. Joseph.

Since arriving three years ago, Joseph has been trying to rebuild Maryland's legal aid organization from the inside out, using public and private donations to boost salaries to recruit and keep a corps of experienced lawyers, and provide computers for the 90 attorneys and 45 paralegals.

The bureau opened 35,000 cases last year, but fielded thousands more calls that were resolved with quick advice, Joseph said.

Starting pay was $25,000 a year with no step increases from 1990 to 1997, he said, when it went up to $29,500, with small annual increases. "People were going left and right," Joseph said.

Thanks to a state surcharge on each civil case filed in Maryland, the bureau's $10 million annual budget will benefit from $2.8 million in collections, plus $250,000 in private donations from various law firms.

Joseph said he is working to build good relationships with leaders of every Maryland jurisdiction and bar association in the hope of creating a solid financial base for the bureau.

"We're well on the way, but whenever you're dealing with poor people, you always feel like it's an uphill battle to stimulate people's [public] interest," said Warren S. Oliveri Jr., president of the bureau's board of directors.

The situation in Howard is due to improve, officials say.

"We have a paralegal now on limited hours. You can't understate the importance of having a full-time presence. People look at that as being their office," said Franklin M. Johnson Jr., chief attorney for the legal aid regional office covering Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties.

Since 1995, the Howard office has been open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the second, third and fourth Wednesdays of each month. In addition, legal aid visits several county library branches each month.

Next month, the Ellicott City office will be staffed by a full-time attorney and a paralegal 40 hours a week.

That's a change county officials welcome. "It's a necessary program. I applaud it. Everybody ought to have all the legal aid they can get," said Samuel W. Marshall, the county's director of social services.

Desperate for help

It's an opinion shared by a former client. Newly divorced, with five children to support, burdened with debts and without a car, Michele Curley of Columbia was desperate last year.

Silver Spring-based legal aid attorney Dan Hatcher came to the rescue by helping Curley file for bankruptcy. She had been just days from losing a quarter of her weekly paycheck to bill collectors armed with a court order.

Now, instead of calling the Baltimore legal aid office and getting rides to Prince George's or Montgomery counties to see attorneys as Curley did, Howard clients will have a lawyer working from the bureau's office at the District Court building in Ellicott City.

Legal aid provides about two lawyers for every 10,000 poor people, compared with one lawyer per 500 people in the general population.

Devoted staff

Hatcher, who left a large Indiana law firm for low-paid public service, has been with legal aid for two years, he said, and makes $30,000 a year. "I love it," he said, noting, however, that the low pay makes it hard for those supporting a family.

Curley, 39, said Hatcher made things as easy for her as he could, given her transportation problems.

"He took most of the information over the phone and let me fax the papers. He made it real easy for me," said Curley, adding that a private lawyer would have charged up to $500, which she couldn't afford.

Now she's a nursing student, working, and recently got a used van for her family. "It definitely helped me start all over," she said.

Pub Date: 6/29/99

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