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Delivery of Legal Services Newsletter

  WINTER 2009

In this issue:


Welcome Message:

Winter Greetings!  I serve as Chair of the Delivery of Legal Services Section Council of the Maryland State Bar Association.  We are inaugurating this e-Newsletter to provide you, the Section Membership, with occasional updates on our work.  Our Council is comprised of dedicated attorneys (and one non-attorney) who teach law, run legal services programs, pro bono and volunteer legal services organizations, and who practice law in large and small private firms, government agencies and legal services organizations.

Our Section is charged in its By-Laws to promote the administration of justice by ensuring that adequate legal services are available for the traditionally underserved including the "indigent" and others of "modest means," "public interest," "civil rights," people with disabilities, "consumer advocacy," etc.  To this end, as more fully described below, we are advocating for a modest increase in civil filing fees to make up for the dramatic decrease in IOLTA revenue, which has traditionally been a major source of funding for legal services for people of limited means.   We are hoping to prevent the looming reduction in access to legal services for low-income people at this time of economic distress when so many more people qualify for and need these legal services. We hope you will join in supporting our efforts.

You will also find below the annual report of our 2008-2009 activities. Please visit the MSBA website’s Delivery of Legal Services Section page to read the minutes from our last meeting in November. Thank you for your dedication to access to justice for the underserved!

Suzanne Sangree, Chair, Delivery of Legal Services Section Council, 2009-2010

IOLTA Funding Crisis Threatens Legal Services for the Poor in MD

Your Section Council is greatly concerned by the current funding crisis affecting legal services organizations that serve Maryland’s poor. The problem involves one of the main funding sources for our legal services community, the Interest on Lawyers Trust Account program (IOLTA) that supports Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC), which in turn funds 35 legal services organizations in Maryland. With interest rates dropping to new lows, these accounts are producing ever diminishing returns. A comparison of fiscal 2008 revenue to projected revenue in fiscal 2011 is illustrative. In 2008, IOLTA accounts generated $6.7 million in income for MLSC. In fiscal 2011, MLSC projects a precipitous drop in IOLTA revenue to below the $2 million mark. This catastrophic reduction in IOLTA funding could decimate Maryland’s legal services community. Staff lay-offs, program cuts, and a severe curtailment of access to justice for low income people are all likely unless an alternative source of funding is found.

The Section Council considered several proposed funding options to address the IOLTA problem. The most viable option, and the one that could make up the projected deficit, is to increase Maryland’s filing fee surcharge on civil actions. You may not know, but our state has some of the lowest Circuit and District Court filing fees in the region. For example, our Circuit Court fee of $105 is almost half the same fee in New Jersey. And Pennsylvania charges a whopping $303 filing fee for civil actions in its Circuit Court. Filing fees in Virginia and DC similarly are higher than Maryland’s.

Recognizing the need to address the IOLTA funding crisis, the Section Council enacted a resolution in favor of a reasonable increase in the current filing fee surcharge. The money collected from this surcharge would help fill the gap in the budgets of many vital legal services organizations.

We know that in the current economic climate any increase in filing fees may be viewed by some with disapproval. But considering the funding crisis in legal services, quick action is necessary. This surcharge would be the least burdensome way to increase funding ensuring that low income people continue to have access to legal process, and so that the legal services community will survive.

When you have the chance, please review our resolution below. If you have concerns or questions please feel free to contact a member of the Section Council.

Resolution of the Delivery of Legal Services Section of the MSBA

WHEREAS one of the primary purposes of the Delivery of Legal Services Section (“DLS Section”) of the Maryland State Bar Association (“the Association”) is to “promote the administration of justice in the State of Maryland by providing and encouraging others to provide legal services in those areas of law practice in which legal representation is not adequately and routinely available . . . [which] may include, for example, legal services for the indigent . . . .”

WHEREAS the main source of funding for legal services for low income Maryland residents is the IOLTA Program, and that funding has decreased from $6.7 million in FY2008 to $4 million in FY2009; projected IOLTA income for FY2010 is only $2 million;

WHEREAS without access to legal representation, low income people are deprived of access to legal recourse impacting myriad critical human needs including housing, employment, medical care, subsistence benefits, child custody and family matters, reasonable accommodations for disabilities, etc;

WHEREAS access to legal recourse is a bedrock of civil society and American democracy;

WHEREAS the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC), the Editorial Board of the Daily Record, members of the legal services community, and many others concerned with access to justice for low-income Marylanders have identified a modest increase in certain filing fee surcharges as a fair and reasonable means by which to address the unprecedented, dramatic loss of IOLTA funding and the continued significant projected losses in IOLTA revenue;

WHEREAS Maryland’s court filing fees are among the lowest in the country, and would still remain below the average court filing fees in neighboring states with a modest surcharge increase;

WHEREAS passage of such an increase would avert an impending crisis, and provide Maryland’s legal services delivery system with a desperately needed stable, predictable, source of revenue from year to year, as well as improve the administration of justice for the bar, the judiciary, and all Maryland citizens by facilitating improved usage of Maryland’s courts;

WHEREAS the Maryland State Bar Association’s mission includes the facilitation of justice, and the MSBA has consistently demonstrated its commitment to this mission by its long and proud tradition of supporting initiatives which promote access to justice for all citizens and public respect for the rule of law;

THEREFORE, the Delivery of Legal Services Section of the Maryland State Bar Association hereby RESOLVES to urge the MSBA Committee on Laws and the Board of Governors to continue the Association’s long and proud tradition of supporting access to justice by actively supporting passage of the MLSC filing fee surcharge bill in the upcoming legislative session to increase certain court filing fee surcharges to be paid to the MLSC Fund to help stabilize funding for Maryland’s legal services delivery system.

Enacted by unanimous vote, this 18th day of November, 2009

Suzanne Sangree, Chair
Delivery of Legal Services Section Council

08/09 MSBA Annual Report on Delivery of Legal Services

The Section Council increased its membership this year to include 19 members and is beginning an effort to increase participation of legal services attorneys on other relevant section councils and standing committees. A Judicare Family Law Pilot project, which the Council helped launch through the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Maryland Legal Services Corporation, is in its second year and will soon undergo a formal evaluation. The Section has a representative on the new Maryland Access to Justice Commission and on the Content Advisory Committee of People’s Law Library, now overseen by the Maryland State Law Library. The Section is also coordinating with the MSBA Planning Committee’s Access to Justice Subcommittee. Other achievements are the formation of a legislative committee to monitor legislation, continuation of work to overcome barriers to accessing justice due to limited English proficiency and the co-sponsorship of the 10th Maryland Partners for Justice Conference.

Ann Lembo, Chair, Delivery of Legal Services Section Council, 2008-2009

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