State commission recommends increase in volunteer lawyers, services for poor

Judges are asked to assist in closing `significant gap'

April 04, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Judges and lawyers around the state should create local programs to boost free legal help for the poor to fill a "significant gap" in legal services and reverse a decline in volunteer lawyers, a state commission recommends.

The group estimates that every year about 150,000 people in the state forgo legal representation in civil cases because they cannot afford an attorney and too few lawyers volunteer to take on such cases. Indigent people accused of crimes are guaranteed a public defender by law.

In a report being distributed this week, the Maryland Judicial Commission on Pro Bono is recommending that the state courts' administrative office require each court to draft a plan to provide free legal help.

A statewide office would act as a coordinator, approving and monitoring the plans and keeping statistics.

"I think if Maryland adopts this, we will be in the forefront" of states working to ensure that the indigent are represented, said Court of Special Appeals Judge Deborah Sweet Byrnes, commission chairwoman.

The commission recommended what Byrnes called "grass-roots judicial involvement" -- that judges take the lead with local bar associations and other groups to craft the plans.

"We've seen the power of the bench. We need to maximize it," said Sharon E. Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland Inc. and a commission member.

A few years ago, when Baltimore County judges called for volunteers to take domestic cases, 112 attorneys responded -- a good turnout, Goldsmith said.

But most times, far more people need a lawyer, for anything from landlord-tenant problems to custody disputes, than get one. Free and low-cost legal service referral centers and providers commonly have their phones ringing off the hook, she said.

The commission found that a comprehensive tally on how widespread the problem is does not exist.

But its review of available statistics led the commission to conclude that "many of the state's poor are not receiving needed legal services."

Half of the groups that work to place low-fee or no-fee cases told the commission last summer that finding lawyers has become more difficult.

In recent years, lawyers' commitment to what is known as pro bono work has declined, the commission said.

People coming to court without an attorney are generally at a disadvantage, and their cases often frustrate everyone involved, including judges, experts say.

Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, who established the group in September 1998, said he was pleased with the recommendations.

To implement the plan, the Court of Appeals would need to approve several changes in court rules, which could take a year, Byrnes said.

The state court office is seeking $128,000 in the coming fiscal year to get started.

It plans to hire a state coordinator and begin a program that would teach mediation to lawyers, officials said.

Byrnes said the recommendations let each court craft a plan for its needs. In most areas, those are likely to be divorce, custody and other domestic cases.

Around the state, about half of all domestic filings are done without an attorney, with warring spouses filling in the blanks in court-supplied forms.

The commission also recommended making Maryland the second state in the nation to require that lawyers report how many hours they volunteer, and set a goal of every lawyer completing 50 hours a year.

Those who do less than half of that should make a contribution to an organization that provides free legal aid, the report suggested.

Much of the program that the commission recommends is modeled on Florida's plan, which in three years saw an 11.7 percent increase in the number of lawyers doing free work for the poor, a 76 percent jump in the number of hours and a 48 percent increase in contributions.

Florida asks lawyers to volunteer 20 hours.

How much free legal help Maryland lawyers provide is unclear.

The commission estimated that $5 million worth was provided through organized efforts in fiscal 1999, with lawyers recruited by the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service doing the equivalent of $1 million worth.

But that estimate did not include lawyers who take cases on their own, clinics that help people file divorce paperwork, free mediation, and work by law students.

Some judges are gearing up to woo more volunteers. In Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, where lawyers who volunteer to referee civil cases have helped unclutter the courts, administrative Judge Clayton R. Greene is looking to put together a committee to study local needs.

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