Last March, the Court of Appeals of Maryland adopted the Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services’ State Pro Bono Action Plan and Report to promote greater judicial involvement in pro bono service and strengthen Maryland’s legal services delivery system and local pro bono committees. On July 1, 2007, trial court judges became full members of every county’s local pro bono committee to assist in the development and implementation of pro bono action plans to address the legal needs of the disadvantaged. This is one of several significant changes emerging from the Action Plan to enhance pro bono service in Maryland.
Other Rule changes from the Action Plan include: “an unlimited number of legal services representatives on the local committees; oversight by the county administrative judge to ensure that the committees are working and have the full complement of members; submission of annual reports from local committees by May 1, 2008; and the allowance of regional pro bono committees.”
The Court actually approved all but one of the 20 recommendations contained in the Action Plan and some have already been implemented. In addition to the trial judges joining the local committees, these include a memo from Chief Judge Robert M. Bell encouraging all judges to be involved in pro bono activities, modifications of the pro bono reporting form and presentations on pro bono involvement to members of the bench during the Judicial Conference. The Action Plan also cites the progress that has been made in recent years and commends the “strong record of volunteerism within the Maryland Bar.”
Maryland’s Bar has always known that the majority of lawyers in the state volunteer for pro bono service to help the indigent population with its legal problems, but there was never enough hard evidence to back up this claim until 2002, when the Court of Appeals of Maryland implemented annual attorney pro bono reporting. For the last five years, Maryland attorneys have reported their hours of pro bono service to the Court, which tracks them to gain a snapshot of the state’s legal services landscape. In 2005, attorney reporting showed Maryland lawyers dedicated over 1.5 million volunteer hours in pro bono service to help the poor. This picture depicts strong attorney volunteerism.
This snapshot is portrayed in the Action Plan, which analyzes the current status of pro bono in the state, including attorney pro bono reporting, and praises the Maryland Bar for its “strong tradition of pro bono service.” However, its findings clearly demonstrate that despite the number of pro bono volunteer attorneys increasing each year, pro bono lawyers “cannot meet the substantial portion of the legal needs of those with limited means.”
This Report hails from the Court of Appeals’ Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Service, after a three-year study on access to Maryland’s legal system by people of limited means. It includes “an extensive description of the legal needs, scope and extent of pro bono service in the state as well as a summary of local pro bono committee plans.” It offers 20 recommendations to further expand legal services to the indigent.
To enhance untapped resources so access to justice for those in need may be increased, the Report recommends, most notably, increased judicial involvement on local committees and in pro bono activities, as judges bring important leadership roles. It also proposes: publication of a Best Practices Manual on pro bono development; Administrative Office of the Courts funding for local pro bono committee initiatives; expanded training and recruitment of pro bono attorneys to address the family law need; and modified government agency policies to allow more government attorneys to participate in pro bono.
The Court of Appeals implemented three Rule revisions on July 1, 2002: Rule 16-902 created local pro bono committees in each county to put into effect action plans to promote pro bono service on a local basis; Rule 16-901 establishes a Standing Committee on Pro Bono Service to act as a policy body and develop a detailed pro bono state-wide action plan within three years; and Rule 16-903 enacted annual lawyer pro bono reporting.
Progress to Date
The effectiveness of these three Rule changes is reflected in the Action Plan. Findings indicate that all three have greatly enhanced pro bono legal services to the poor, but much more still needs to be done. “We see this as an institutionalized problem, so we look at the problem from all angles to determine how to improve services,” states Sharon E. Goldsmith, Executive Director of the Pro Bono Resource Center.
“Our focus at the Standing Committee and local levels is bringing together the bar, bench, legal and social services representatives and the public to strategically plan how we can best provide legal access to people of limited means,” Goldsmith stresses. “All of the components need to work together so we can focus on where we need to make changes. We must constantly nurture the efforts and find creative ways to expand services.”
To date, much of the pro bono success hails from the local committee planning efforts. “Each county is unique, tailoring the right approach for its specific community,” Goldsmith reports. “For instance, several counties on the Eastern Shore joined together to form a regional pro bono program and now have funding and staff to refer cases to attorneys practicing in that region.”
“The Mid-Shore Pro Bono Project has placed 81 cases with volunteers since June of last year, a clear record for that region,” she adds. “The Project is also contemplating the creation of a mediation program and already has become a valuable resource to the courts. Courthouse pro se clinics in Allegany, Carroll and Charles counties are able to be sustained through the assistance of pro bono lawyers as well.”
“In Prince George’s county, the Community Legal Services Program was able to finally establish a satellite office to serve residents in the southern part of the county,” she continues. “Volunteer lawyers have been staffing the office to help with intake and counsel prospective clients.”
“We know that we cannot expect to address all of the legal needs of the poor but we can make a good attempt to close the gap between those who can and cannot afford legal representation,” concludes Goldsmith. “We are changing a culture. That takes time, vision and a sustained commitment. Fortunately, we have the leadership in Maryland to make sure that happens.”
The full Action Plan and Report may be found at www.courts.state.md.us/probono/stateactionplan.html.