After a yearlong probe of the state’s delivery of legal services system and its effectiveness in meeting the needs of citizens, the Maryland Access to Justice Commission (AJC) has disclosed that “legal services funding in Maryland is inadequate and access to the courts is insufficient for the low-income.” Citing the growing need for assistance, the severe cuts in state funding and the considerable loss of revenue from IOLTA funds, AJC has declared a legal services funding crisis and, in an interim report, proposes 62 recommendations to address this situation. Two of these proposals – an increase in filing fees for all civil cases and a surge in the annual Client Protection Fund fee – significantly impact Maryland lawyers.
While many of these recommendations affect the legal profession, the three of greatest importance to lawyers are: (1) an increase in the attorney registration fee collected by the Client Protection Fund to fund civil legal services; (2) an increase in the filing fee surcharge for all civil cases by a reasonable amount to fund civil legal services; and (3) endorsement of the “principle of a general fee-shifting provision as a means to promote access to justice through an award of attorney’s fees for individuals successfully enforcing their rights under Maryland law or Maryland Constitution.”
MSBA is very concerned over the dearth in funding for civil legal services to the state’s indigent and, in the last 18 months, has encouraged members to step up their volunteer pro bono efforts and financial contributions to legal services funding. “Attorneys donated well over one million volunteer pro bono hours and contributed close to $2.96 million to legal services in 2007 alone,” reports MSBA President Thomas C. Cardaro. “Plus, over 900 lawyers volunteered for training, accepted pro bono cases and helped thousands of Marylanders facing foreclosure through the successful Foreclosure Project.”
The Association urges lawyers to strengthen their volunteer pro bono service but has long held that inadequate funding for civil legal services to the indigent is a societal problem requiring a societal solution – specifically, an increase in funding earmarked for legal services from a State of Maryland General Funding appropriation. “This societal issue should be borne by all taxpayers and not just the legal community,” states Cardaro. “These are tough times, and many lawyers are struggling; many newly admitted attorneys cannot even find jobs.”
The Interim Report & Recommendations of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission (www.mdcourts.gov/mdatjc/pdfs/interimreport111009.pdf) contains the preliminary findings of AJC’s study, largely consisting of the work of its six committees and input from citizens attending the statewide public forums. The 62 recommendations hail from the specific topics assigned to the Commission’s six committees: (1) Safety, Accessibility & Convenience Committee; (2) Access & Delivery of Legal Services Committee; (3) Self-Represented Litigants Committee; (4) Critical Barriers Committee; (5) Public Information Committee; and (6) Definitions & Standards Committee.
AJC was created in the fall of 2008 when the state, and nation, began sliding into one of the worst recessions in modern times. Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Court of Appeals of Maryland, established AJC to enhance the quality of justice for all citizens, expand access to justice with respect to civil rights matters and oversee the protection and rights the law provides to Marylanders. It consists of judicial leaders, elected officials, state government representatives, MSBA leaders, legal services providers and faith groups. AJC is chaired by retired Judge Irma S. Raker, Court of Appeals of Maryland, and Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn, District Court of Maryland, serves as Vice Chair.
The Commission’s mandate is to “develop, consolidate, coordinate and implement policy initiatives and enhance the quality of justice in civil legal matters for persons who encounter barriers in gaining access to Maryland’s civil justice system.” Bell directed AJC to recommend and implement “changes to improve the ability of all Marylanders to use the courts effectively and to obtain legal help when they need it.” This includes everything from landlord-tenant cases, divorce, child custody issues, small claims and debt collection to domestic violence and other non-criminal case types.
Early on, AJC determined that, to a large extent, its success was based on inclusion of views from a broad range of Marylanders. Therefore, the Commission launched a series of listening events in June 2009. These public forums, held in all geographic corners of the state, garner input from members of the public representing different ethnicities, cultures and experiences with the court system. To date, six listening events have been held attracting an audience of members of the public and stakeholders.
Katherine Kelly Howard, MSBA’s Immediate Past President and the Association’s representative on AJC, is encouraging Maryland attorneys to attend the remaining listening events (www.mdcourts.gov/mdatjc/pdfs/eventflyer.pdf). She reminds Maryland lawyers that “while MSBA is your voice on the Commission, this is your chance to voice your individual concern and views as a lawyer. This is your opportunity to be on the record with your opinion about these proposals.”
The entire package of proposed AJC reforms has been submitted to the Court of Appeals for its consideration. In the meantime, AJC will continue its work, compile feedback from the remaining listening events and possibly produce a more comprehensive report at the conclusion of the public inquiry process.