The April Issue
This month we recap our legislative priorities and our efforts this legislative session to, together with the MSBA and our justice partners, push key bills that improve the lives of Marylanders. Also in this month’s issue of the A2J Dispatch, we examine the role of nonlawyer legal aid in the fight to make legal help more accessible and affordable in the U.S. We explore how youths caught in the justice system face various pitfalls when seeking expungement, including public access to the courts, and how affordable broadband has become essential for access to justice. And we also congratulate Judge Matthew J. Fader on his appointment as Chief Judge in the Court of Appeals.
A2J Commission News
A2JC Succeeds in Passing 2022 Legislative Priorities. Earlier this month, the Maryland General Assembly concluded the 2022 legislative session and it was a banner year for the Access to Justice Commission!
- Funding for the Access to Counsel in Evictions Program. Access to Counsel in Evictions has been the law in Maryland since last year and since then, A2JC and our justice partners have been pushing for funding to ensure the program’s implementation. In addition to securing the $5.4M in funding from the Hogan Administration, we called for lawmakers to provide additional funding for the Program and we are proud to report that the general assembly voted to provide $6.4 million in fiscal year 2023 and took steps to secure an additional $14 million for fiscal year 2024.
- Real-time Eviction Data Collection and Reporting. Equally important to funding the A2Counsel in Evictions Program is real-time eviction data because inadequate eviction data would undermine implementation and assessment of the A2Counsel in Evictions Program. After hearing our calls, legislators voted to granular collection and monthly reporting of data related to evictions. The new data will go a long way towards informing eviction prevention services for vulnerable tenants and communities.
New Chief Judge in the Maryland Court of Appeals. We congratulate Chief Judge Matthew J. Fader on his appointment to serve as Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. Governor Larry Hogan swore in Chief Judge Fader on April 15, 2022. We look forward to working with Chief Judge Fader to advance access to justice in Maryland.
A2JC Commissioner Vicki Schultz, Newest Executive Director of MLA. We celebrate A2J Commissioner Vicki Schultz, who has been named Maryland Legal Aid’s new Executive Director, effective May 31, 2022. Schultz has been an integral part of the A2JC and a longtime champion of A2J issues. We look forward to working with Commissioner Schultz in her newest role as we continue to collaborate with our civil justice partners to address injustice and advance meaningful access to justice for all Marylanders.
Honorable Charles R. Richey Equal Justice Award. We also congratulate Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta for receiving the 2022 Honorable Charles R. Richey Equal Justice Award. In her remarks to the MSBA and A2JC through the 125th Spark Series, Associate AG Gupta emphasized the importance of the Department of Justice’s civil rights mission and noted that “[w]e can’t have equal justice under the law without equal access to justice.”
Civil Legal Aid Community Legislative Wins for Marylanders. In addition to providing direct legal services, civil legal aid organizations serve a critical role in advocating for legislation that helps vulnerable Marylanders. Below is a non-comprehensive list of legislative successes that were advocated for and supported by A2JC justice partners and civil legal aid providers.
- Ending Debtors’ Prisons. New legislation pushed by the Consumer Rights Coalition and other consumer-oriented civil legal aid organizations completely ends debtors’ prisons in the state of Maryland and assists individuals who have been jailed for small consumer debts as well as those who have arrest warrants issued against them each year because of small consumer debts. The new law helps to end the criminalization of poverty in a real way and means that Maryland will finally end this Dickensian practice. HB349/SB452
- Reimbursement for Patients Wrongfully Charged. New laws advocated by the Consumer Rights Coalition and other consumer rights groups, will require Maryland hospitals, the Comptroller, and state agencies to develop a process to identify and reimburse patients that qualified for free hospital care but were wrongfully charged and pursued by debt collectors. The legislation will identify and refund patients from 2017-2021 and will return an estimated $200 million to low-income patients. HB694
- Supported Decision Making. Individuals around the state will benefit from new laws pushed by Disability Rights Maryland and other disability rights groups that provide a less restrictive alternative to guardianship called Supported Decision Making (SDM). The law protects a person’s right to self-determination by recognizing that simply because a person relies on another or a team of people to make decisions does not mean that they need a guardian. HB529/SB559
- K-12 Students and Physical Restraint and Seclusion. K-12 students with disabilities are protected from harm by a new law pushed by Disability Rights Maryland and other disability rights groups prohibiting the use of seclusion and placing limits on physical restraint in schools. The law prohibits elementary and secondary schools from using seclusion as a behavioral health intervention for a student and the use of physical restraint except in limited circumstances. HB1255/SB705
- Renters Tax Credits. New laws pushed by the coalition Renters United Maryland that go into effect June 1, 2023 give certain taxpayers retroactive property tax credits where they qualified for, but failed to submit an application that year. The Renters’ Property Tax Relief Program provides financial assistance for elderly, disabled, and certain low-income renters. HB449
- Tenants’ Rights. New rules advocated by the coalition Renters United Maryland empower tenants with the right to petition the courts to shield (from public access) failure-to-pay-rent actions brought against them during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill’s provisions apply to court records in failure to pay rent actions that were filed on or after March 5, 2020, but before January 1, 2022. HB521
Local A2J News
- Organizations Collaborate for New Asylum Clinic. The Hopkins, Esperanza and Loyola (HEAL) Refugee Health and Asylum Clinic, a collaboration between Hopkins, the Esperanza Center and Loyola University Maryland is the first asylum clinic of its kind. HEAL aims to increase access to [legal assistance and] physical and psychological forensic evaluations for forced migrants and survivors of torture and trauma.
- Baltimore Income Pilot Program. Low-income families face hard financial decisions everyday and oftentimes lack of income can mean the difference between affording a lawyer to fend off an eviction court case and homelessness. In May 2022, the city of Baltimore will launch a new guaranteed income pilot program that gives $1,000 per month to eligible participants. The money will come with no strings attached and “could go toward making rent and staving off an eviction.”
- Benefits Fraud. Public assistance benefits like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA) help millions of low-income families make ends meet, but benefit fraud is on the rise in Maryland and other states as fraudsters are using illegal electronic devices to ‘skim’ or ‘clone’ information from EBT cards.
- Expungement. One in four Marylanders have a criminal record, and many of these Marylanders have not been convicted of the crimes listed on their public record. Studies show that “[w]hen someone has a criminal record, they are more likely to be denied housing, occupational licenses, and even entry-level jobs unrelated to their record,” . . . and “diminished access to jobs and housing reduces the likelihood that individuals will be able to support their families.” As a result, advocates argue that “we need more expungement, not less.”
- Virtual Court Proceedings. Courtrooms across the state will continue using remote access technology beyond the coronavirus pandemic. In a report submitted by the Joint Subcommittee on Post COVID-19 Judicial Operations, proponents cited several ways virtual court proceedings have lessened barriers around appearing in court, for example “litigants and defendants were able to participate in their court hearings without being forced to take time off work, commute or find transportation to the courthouse, or pay for child care.”
National A2J News
- Justice Tech and Access to Broadband. A recent report from Next Century Cities and Berkeley Law outlines how “broadband has become essential for access to justice” and now “[m]ore so than before the pandemic, the digital divide has become a civil rights divide.” Meanwhile, legal tech innovators continue to find ways to use technology to bridge the legal aid gap. In the latest episode of the Legal Talk Network podcast, legal tech CEO, Jazz Hampton discusses his Minnesota-based tech company, TurnSignl, which provides real-time legal guidance to drivers during a traffic stop.
- States Right to Counsel Bills. Citing cities like San Francisco, CA; Boulder, CO; Baltimore, MA; and Kansas City, MO that implement Right to Counsel programs without means testing, Advocates in New York urge state lawmakers to pass a universal Right to Counsel for all tenants (according to data 84% of NYC tenants that had a right to counsel lawyer won their case and were able to stay in their homes).
- Courts and Tech Challenges. As many states continue to be undecided about the future use of remote and hybrid hearings, a new NCSC report looks to provide recommendations on how courts can accommodate fluctuations in case-filing trends and changes in the way hearings are conducted when planning for judge and staff resources in the future. Also, new technology that uses audiovisual recording to document hearings and depositions and speech recognition to prepare transcripts has been making its way into courtrooms -malfunctions and tech challenges have as well. A recent Law360 article points to a 285-page transcript of a Maryland administrative hearing in 2019 where there were 108 “inaudibles,” and passages where the recording system could not tell what was said).
- A2J and Nonlawyer Representatives. Pointing to data that suggests that 70% of civil and family law cases include a party without a lawyer, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) announces a new initiative looks to create a framework that will help states understand the roles of nonlawyer representatives.
- Juvenile Justice and Equity. Advocates say that the existing state law patchwork for juvenile expungement leaves some youths no choice but to live under the stigma of a juvenile record forever. They also argue that “expungement ought to be available for all and automatic, not a process that requires filing paperwork, paying fees and appealing to the discretion of a judge.”