Legal program expands to meet need

Arundel's 'Ask a Lawyer' offers 20 minutes of free consultation on civil cases

January 10, 2010|By Andrea F. Siegel

So in-demand are the free monthly legal consultations in the Anne Arundel County Law Library that the library and the Anne Arundel Bar Association are expanding the program.

Begun as a pilot program in May and held once a month last fall, the sessions - which offer free advice from volunteer lawyers - will be available every Wednesday starting this week. They are for civil issues only, excluding family law matters, and not confined to county residents.

The "Ask a Lawyer in the Library" meetings were trimmed from 30 minutes to 20 minutes so that lawyers could see more people. Lawyers will be available from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sign-up starts at 10:45 a.m.

The decision to expand the program in the courthouse came because of increased requests to meet with a lawyer, said law librarian Joan Bellestri.

"Last time, the attorney stayed an extra hour, and he still didn't get to everyone," she said.

Also, Jan. 23 the program leaves the courthouse for a public library branch - "Ask a Lawyer in the Public Library."

Between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., people can confer with a lawyer for up to a half hour for free at the Russett branch in Laurel.

So far, three lawyers from the Laurel area agreed to be there, said Elizabeth Y. Leight, co-chairwoman of the county bar association's Pro Bono Committee who led the push for the program at Russett. She is asking other lawyers, especially those with specialties, to pitch in even if they cannot be there.

"We are going to have laptops available and ask attorneys to be available by e-mail or by phone," she said.

"I'm hoping that this will be successful and that we will be able to take it on the road, so to speak," she said. "We want to take this program to the local communities, to the people who cannot come to Annapolis during the week - maybe they work, maybe they can't get there."

Officials said the sour economy has heightened the demand for free and low-cost legal help.

"If they are having problems paying their bills, they are not going to go hire an attorney to help them out," she said.

People might simply want a lawyer to look over applications for retirement or other benefits, she said.

"It's a good thing for us to add," said Administrative Law Judge Dan Andrews, who is Leight's co-chair. "The western county library program is a pilot to take it outside the courthouse."

Depending on response, the group might try the Glen Burnie area next, he said.

There are no income restrictions for the free advice.

Howard County's law library has a similar program that operates in the law library and at a public library with a lawyer providing free legal advice. That has income limits, according to the law library's Web site.

The Anne Arundel County program is jointly sponsored by the Anne Arundel Bar Association and the law library.

Lawyers can apply their volunteer hours toward the state judiciary's request for public service, help those who cannot afford a lawyer and boost the image of lawyers.

Since 2002, Maryland court rules have advised lawyers to perform at least 50 hours of legal work for free or at substantially reduced rates for people who cannot otherwise afford a lawyer or for organizations that serve poor people, or donate money to a legal services organization. In the past two years, Maryland Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has made two appeals to lawyers.

The Anne Arundel program is for civil court issues - but not for family matters like divorce and custody - such as dealing with consumer disputes, employment issues and financial hardship.

People are asked to bring a list of questions, paperwork, information about the matter, a timeline and list of deadlines that have to be met.

The law library is in the Anne Arundel County Court House, 7 Church Circle, Annapolis.

The Maryland City at Russett library branch is at 3501 Russett Common, Laurel.

For information, call 410-222-1387 or e-mail library@circuitcourt.org.

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