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Maryland AG Calls On All Lawyers To Aid With Civil Justice 'Crisis'

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh attends Gov. Larry Hogan's 2020 State of the State address. Credit: Rachel Baye / WYPR
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, pictured at Gov. Larry Hogan's 2020 State of the State address, is calling on every Maryland attorney to take on at least one pro bono case or commit to a certain number of pro bono hours this year. Credit: Rachel Baye / WYPR

As many Marylanders continue to grapple with the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, state Attorney General Brian Frosh is warning of a “crisis in access to justice.” To help, he is asking every lawyer in Maryland to pitch in.

Frosh joined other state legal leaders at a press conference Thursday to ask every Maryland attorney to take on at least one pro bono case or devote a certain number of hours to free legal work this year.

“Before the pandemic, nearly 80% of Marylanders with civil legal problems were unable to obtain legal assistance, and were forced to navigate the complex civil justice system on their own,” Frosh said. “That's like playing in a high stakes poker game where you don't know the rules and you don't even speak the language.”

Now the problem has been compounded, Frosh said, as residents struggle with evictions and foreclosures, challenges accessing unemployment benefits and other public benefits, or utility shut-offs as they get behind on their bills. Paying for a lawyer on top of all that is nearly impossible.

To understand the scope of problem, said Reena Shah, executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, “it's important to understand how sprawling the civil justice system is” — encompassing topics ranging from rent, consumer debt, family law issues such as child custody or divorce, public benefits like unemployment insurance and Medicaid, and even bankruptcy.

“COVID-19 and the result economic fallout touched on pretty much all of these issues and made them worse, and made it so that more Marylanders than ever will get entangled in the civil justice system,” Shah said. “The most potent solution to help people when they are confronted with the civil justice system is getting them legal representation so they can understand and vindicate their rights and have a fair shake at justice.”

Nearly 40% of Maryland lawyers already perform more than a million hours of pro bono service each year, said Maryland State Bar Association President Natalie McSherry, who also joined the call to action Thursday.

This spring, the General Assembly passed a law creating an “Access to Counsel in Evictions Program,” run by the Maryland Legal Services Corporation.

“It essentially encourages the state to find additional resources that would provide access to tenants in landlord-tenant court and eviction proceedings,” Frosh said of the law, which went into effect on May 30.

However, the program will be phased in, so it may not be operational before Oct. 1, 2025. The program also does not guarantee legal representation. Whether someone facing eviction gets a lawyer depends on funding, which the General Assembly did not allocate.

Frosh said he has asked Gov. Larry Hogan to set aside federal American Rescue Plan funding for these legal services.

Mike Ricci, spokesman for Hogan, noted that the funding mechanism for the new law failed to pass during the 90-day legislative session, and that a workgroup established by the law will meet to discuss next steps.

Ricci also noted that “considerable resources” have already been made available for legal services, including federal funding that local jurisdictions received for eviction assistance; an increase in funding the General Assembly approved for the Maryland Legal Services Corporation; and $3 million in funding Hogan and Frosh announced together last fall.

Lawyers looking to take on pro bono work can visit the Maryland State Bar Association’s Pro Bono Resource Center at probonomd.org.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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