Legal challenge

February 10, 2003

THE LEGAL Aid Bureau is such an indispensable organization that if it didn't exist, someone would have to invent it. Each year, its lawyers give free legal advice on civil matters to more than 50,000 low-income clients in Baltimore and around Maryland.

Remarkably, the bureau has long offered its services without direct taxpayer financing. Instead, it has relied on interest income from lawyer trust accounts.

Recently, though, that source has been drying up because of falling interest rates. If supplementary money is not found, Legal Aid services, which already were cut substantially last year, will have to be curtailed further.

That could prove disastrous. Faced with unassisted cases, Maryland's courts would likely become even more clogged than they are today.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has recognized that - and wisely so. He has included a $1.2 million request for the Legal Aid Bureau in the overall court budget. That modest allocation would be enough to ensure continued representation of many low-income people by the agency.

But many legislators are no fans of Chief Judge Bell. After last year's redistricting controversy ended up in the courts, he oversaw the remapping and justified the lines in a voluminous decision. However, it would be reprehensible for legislators to seek revenge by jeopardizing the court budget.

Moreover, the legislature has a singular moral duty to ensure that the poor are offered adequate legal representation. That obligation is grounded in a 1982 law that set up the current legal assistance funding mechanism.

"There is a need to provide equal access to the system of justice for individuals who seek redress of grievances," the law's preamble declared. "The availability of legal service reaffirms faith in our government of laws. The funding of legal assistance programs for those who are unable to afford legal counsel will serve the ends of justice and the general welfare of all Maryland citizens."

This is a compelling argument for the Legal Aid Bureau's continued funding. Maryland's commitment to the principle of "equal justice for all" is on the line.

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