The cash-strapped Maryland Legal Services Corp., the quasi-public state agency that finances legal help for the poor, received a $425,000 check yesterday through the efforts of a Washington law firm, the second-largest private gift in the agency's 21-year history.
The agency, which scaled back its grants to legal aid groups last year, said the donation will help maintain and possibly boost funding this year.
"This really is a godsend for us," Robert J. Rhudy, the agency's executive director, said yesterday at a ceremony at the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis.
Maryland Legal Services Corp. distributes $6.5 million in grants each year to 28 groups across the state that provide legal help in child custody, landlord-tenant, disability and other cases.
Last year, it gave those groups $350,000 less than the year before, largely because of plummeting interest rates on accounts that fund the agency.
The $425,000 windfall comes from settlement money in a class action lawsuit against three Maryland cable TV providers accused of charging customers excessive fees for late bill payments.
Under a legal doctrine called cy pres, money unclaimed by plaintiffs can be put to other uses with the court's permission.
John J. Beins, a partner in Beins, Goldberg & Gleiberman, a Washington law firm that represented the 50,000 plaintiffs, said yesterday that the firm steered part of the leftover award to Maryland Legal Services because of its well-publicized financial woes.
"We knew - as does every lawyer in Maryland - that over the last few years, they faced a real financial crunch," Beins said.
Beins and three other lawyers in the case handed a surfboard-size likeness of the check to Rhudy yesterday in the chambers of Maryland's chief judge, Robert M. Bell, a longtime proponent of legal aid for the poor
"The court is very much interested in access to justice," Bell said at the brief afternoon ceremony. "This is very significant."
The lawsuits against the cable providers were settled this spring before trial for about $2 million, according to the plaintiffs' lawyers. Each plaintiff was eligible for an average award of $20 to $30.
The lawsuits were handled by circuit courts in Montgomery, Frederick and Carroll counties.
Of the $2 million settlement, $800,000 went unclaimed. In addition to the $425,000 for the Maryland Legal Services Corp., about $375,000 will be split among several Maryland charities.
Those charities include the Community Foundation of Carroll County, the Hospice of Washington County, the Montgomery County Bar Foundation, the Law Foundation of Prince George's County, and Maryland chapters of Catholic Charities and the Jewish Social Services Agency.