Helping people find lawyers for less

Advice: Two organizations in Maryland offer legal services to people who do not have enough money to hire attorneys.

March 08, 2000|By Chrystal Clifford | Chrystal Clifford,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Pat Preisinger walked into Howard County Circuit Courthouse last month not knowing what to expect. She was looking for advice from a lawyer. For the past three years, she has been separated from her husband and wants to file for divorce, but she doesn't have the money for legal fees.

The session at the courthouse was free for the 55-year-old Ellicott City resident. She met with Ria Rochvarg, an attorney with Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Services (MVLS), to talk about her case. Since September, the nonprofit organization has offered free legal assistance with family law cases at the county courthouse. MVLS "is the largest and oldest organization in this state that uses volunteers to provide free and reduced-fees representation to people with limited income," said Winifred Borden, executive director. It is funded through grants from the state.

MVLS began running clinics like the one in Howard in 1998. Four lawyers, including Rochvarg, are available weekly to meet with people who have questions about family law. Office hours are from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays and 9 a.m. to noon Fridays.

Rochvarg has a background in legal aid, has worked on family law cases for five years and said she wants to help people who are less fortunate.

"When this project came up, I had hoped it would come to Howard County," she said. "The project is very needed. It's helped a wide variety of people in the community."

Another avenue for those seeking legal help is the Legal Aid Bureau. The defining difference between the two is that Legal Aid takes cases for people who need immediate attention, while MVLS is available for those who need advice or forms for a case in which they will represent themselves. Both can provide pro bono or reduced-fee lawyers.

The Legal Aid Bureau provides free assistance for the poor and elderly (age 60 and older) through its 13 offices throughout Maryland. Frank Johnson, chief attorney for the Metropolitan Bureau that covers Howard County, said the focus is on emergency cases dealing with bankruptcy, consumer law, collection suits, landlord-tenant issues, public benefits (help from social services) and domestic matters when a child is at risk of harm.

"If they have enough time to get a lawyer, we usually refer them," Johnson said, adding that sometimes he advises people to call MVLS for a free attorney.

Likewise, someone who meets with an attorney through MVLS may be referred to Legal Aid. "The idea is to work together," Johnson said. "That way, we can cover a lot more."

Rochvarg said attorney fees are about $150 an hour and reduced fees can be $35 to $45 an hour. Not many pro bono or reduced-fee lawyers are available.

Many of Rochvarg's cases concern custody issues.

"It's on a case-by-case basis," Rochvarg said. "But it's better to settle because once you walk into the courtroom, you don't know what's going to happen, especially in family law where there's children to consider."

Many times, she said, people just need the right document to proceed with their case. Still, Rochvarg recognizes the need to have an attorney present in court because she says the person can't do it alone. That was her advice for Preisinger.

"Ria gave me papers to file for a divorce and the number for MVLS," Preisinger said. "I thought she was very helpful. She said I definitely need a lawyer."

Even though people occasionally have to be referred to lawyers, Borden said, the referrals have resulted in MVLS helping people in need. "It's a place for us to refer them to get quick assistance," she said. "The court can't advise litigants on what they should be doing."

Rochvarg, who is paid by MVLS, can take the cases of people who meet her at the clinic after they prove they are eligible for the organization's services.

"I believe it's assisting individuals in the way that it's supposed to," Rochvarg said. "At least they can talk to an attorney versus not having anyone to talk to."

Free legal assistance is available at the Circuit Courthouse from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays and 9 a.m. to noon Fridays. The Maryland Legal Aid Bureau: 888-215-5316 or 410-480-1057.

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