Rescuing legal aid

Our view: Maryland's system of funding legal assistance for the poor is broken

lawmakers must ensure indigent clients in civil cases aren't denied their day in court

March 11, 2010

At a time when record numbers of Marylanders are struggling with foreclosure, eviction or loss of health and unemployment benefits, nonprofit legal aid groups that help people pursue their rights in court are increasingly unable to do their job.

Funding for legal services to the poor has plummeted as a result of the recession. Unless something is done, thousands of families and individuals will lose their ability to challenge the decisions of mortgage companies, landlords, employers and health care providers in court.

The Maryland Legal Services Corp., which supports nonprofit groups across the state that provide legal services to the poor, has seen its funding drop 70 percent over the last 18 months. The agency's principal revenue sources are the interest it receives on the deposits attorneys hold in trust for their clients and a surcharge on fees charged for filing court documents.

Since 1974, when Congress established the Legal Services Corp., interest on so-called lawyer trust accounts has become a widely used method of financing nonprofit groups that provide free legal aid to the poor in civil cases. But the current economic downturn has seen interest rates drop to record lows. As a result, groups that depended on this source of income to fulfill their mission have had to drastically cut back the services they offer.

In Maryland, interest income on lawyer trust accounts fell from $6.7 million in 2008 to just $2 million this year. At the same time, the number of clients seeking legal assistance has jumped by more than 60 percent compared to last year, as more and more people become eligible for aid due to job loss, illness, loss of benefits or other causes. The system for helping struggling residents to resolve disputes in court was already under-resourced; this funding crunch has brought it to the brink of collapse.

That's why a proposal before this year's General Assembly to address the crisis should receive serious consideration from lawmakers. The plan would require modest increases in the surcharge for filing court documents to partly offset the declines in lawyer trust accounts. Under the proposal, the filing fee in Circuit Court would rise from $105 to $150 and fees in District Court would increase from $20 to $30. The filing fee for evictions would also increase by $5.

Even with the increases, court filing fees in Maryland would remain substantially below those of neighboring jurisdictions such as Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. At the same time, the proposal would raise a little more than $9 million to fund legal services for the poor. Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert Bell testified before the House Judiciary Committee that the measure is needed to ensure low-income residents can pursue civil claims in court, and his call for action has been supported by a number of other prominent state jurists.

In times of economic crisis, courts are often the last resort for citizens driven to the wall by desperate circumstances. The poor, who have been hit hardest by this recession, shouldn't be denied their day in court simply because they lack the financial resources to press their claims. Lawmakers should act to keep the gap in justice between haves and have-nots from growing even wider by passing this eminently sensible measure that will allow the Legal Services Corp. to continue to do the job Congress intended.

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