The April/May Issue
In this month’s A2J Dispatch, we take a look at how discrimination and access to justice issues impact the AAPI community, we highlight the disparate implications of the tax sale system and the implications for vulnerable communities, we explore how technology and AI are transforming the legal profession, and we congratulate A2JC Chair, Ward B. Coe III and A2JC Executive Director, Reena K. Shah for being this year’s recipients of the Maryland Legal Aid Executive Director’s Award. All this and more in this month’s issue of the A2JC Dispatch.
A2J Commission News
- Attend the MSBA Legal Summit in Ocean City! A2JC will be hosting a casual and fun Welcome Dinner & Fundraiser at the Legal Summit on Wednesday, June 7 from 7pm to 9pm at Dry Dock 28, just five blocks from the Ocean City Convention Center. Dry Dock 28’s specialty is eclectic pizza, so come relax and help celebrate MSBA’s partnership with A2JC and A2JC’s recent legislative wins over some delicious pizza and drinks! A2JC is proud to have worked with justice partners to help achieve an almost four fold increase in civil legal aid funding in the state totaling over $82M in civil legal aid funding since the start of the pandemic! A2JC will also be hosting a program on Affordable Law at the Legal Summit and A2JC’s DLS Committee will be hosting a panel on building an inclusive practice and reducing barriers for people with disabilities. Check out the full program HERE and register for the Legal Summit HERE. Don’t miss it!
Top: Governor Wes Moore held a bill signing for SB756, Access to Counsel in Eviction funding, on May 16, 2023. Bottom Left: Special guest, Comptroller, Brooke Lierman, a long-time champion of access to justice in the state legislature, joined the Access to Justice Commission meeting on May 17, 2023 Bottom Right: A2JC Chair, Ward B. Coe III and A2JC Executive Director, Reena K. Shah receive this year’s Maryland Legal Aid Executive Director’s Award
- Access to Counsel in Evictions Funding Becomes Law. Governor Wes Moore held a bill signing for SB756, Access to Counsel in Eviction funding, on May 16, 2023. Many advocates who pushed for this bill attended the bill signing, which was a first for our community since the ACE law was passed. Earlier in the day, Governor Moore delivered a rousing and inspirational speech at the Maryland Legal Aid Equal Justice Breakfast, citing the importance of the ACE law and funding and lending the full weight of his support to our community’s efforts.
- Comptroller Lierman joins the May A2JC Commission Meeting. Special guest, Comptroller, Brooke Lierman, a long-time champion of access to justice in the state legislature, joined the Access to Justice Commission meeting on May 17, 2023 to discuss her vision for the Comptroller’s office and engage in a discussion with Commissioners about areas where civil legal aid organizations can engage with her office to help low-income Marylanders.
- A2J Chair and ED honored at MLA’s Equal Justice Awards Breakfast! Join us in congratulating A2JC Chair, Ward B. Coe III and A2JC Executive Director, Reena K. Shah as this year’s recipients of the Maryland Legal Aid Executive Director’s Award. Both are recognized for their work as civil legal aid advocates and their tireless work to level the legal playing field for disadvantaged Marylanders. Each year the award recipients are honored at the Annual Equal Justice Awards Breakfast which is hosted by Maryland Legal Aid’s Equal Justice Council. Governor Wes Moore was this year’s keynote speaker.\
- A2JC Presents at the MSBA Board of Governors Retreat. A2JC Commissioner Shuaa Tajamuul and ED, Reena Shah, presented on the Affordable Law Task Force findings and recommendations at the MSBA’s Board of Governor’s Retreat on May 19, 2023. The Affordable Law Task Force is the first statewide effort to tackle how best to provide legal services to modest means Marylanders – those who do not qualify for free civil legal aid, but cannot afford to pay market rate for civil legal help. Reena Shah also did a presentation on the Commission on May 18 to report on advocacy wins and A2JC’s other achievements during FY2023.
- A2JC Data & Legal Tech Committee. A2JC’s Data and Legal Technology Committee has started attending the substantive area task forces organized by Maryland Legal Aid. These task forces bring together advocates from different organizations to share information and problem-solve issues. The D< Committee presented at the Language Access Task Force on May 11 and at a combined meeting of the Public Benefits and Aging Task Forces on May 16. We discussed the work of our committee
Tips from Maryland Judiciary’s Access to Justice Department. We are pleased to offer recurring content from the Maryland Judiciary’s Access to Justice Department as part of the A2J Dispatch.
- People learn in different ways. Some folks would like more detailed information about court processes and procedures than they can get from written instructions or short format videos. For those individuals, the Maryland Court Help Centers offer a free series of live and on-demand webinars on a broad range of legal topics. Those interested can register for a scheduled live webinar on Filing for Divorce in Maryland, Child Custody and other topics. Participants in live webinars can participate actively and ask questions of the presenter. When someone needs help sooner, a full range of on-demand webinars are available as well on topics including Filing for Expungement, Facing Eviction for Failure to Pay Rent?, and Responding to a Complaint for Divorce. See the full list of offerings at: www.mdcourts.gov/legalhelp/webinars. Webinars are presented by attorneys with the Maryland Court Help Centers.
Local A2J News
- Property Tax System. Last month, city officials announced that roughly 2,000 Baltimore City homeowners would be removed from the city’s coming tax sale. “The move is aimed at lessening the impact of a system that forces some low-income homeowners to pay thousands of dollars in owed taxes, interest and fees to lien holders — or face the loss of their homes.”In a recent article, Margaret Henn, Deputy Director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, expresses concern about Mayor Brandon Scott’s commitment to tax sale reform in Baltimore and calls on the mayor to take concrete steps to address the disparate outcomes in Baltimore’s property tax system.
- Tax Sales and Homeownership. The tax sale process is confusing, incredibly difficult to navigate and all too often homeowners are not adequately informed throughout the process, says Aja’ Mallory a staff attorney at the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service whose practice focuses on housing and consumer issues for Marylanders of limited means. In a recent article with the Baltimore times Mallory lays out a few of the options homeowners can use to protect their homes from tax sale.
- ACE Coordinated Intake. Civil Justice, the United Way of Central Maryland, and A2J Tech have joined forces to create a coordinated intake system that will connect tenants in danger of eviction with legal services providers across Maryland. The new system will simplify the process of seeking legal assistance by using the United Way’s 211 referral system and technology developed by A2J Tech and Civil Justice. The coordinated intake system will launch in Baltimore City in 2023 and expand statewide by 2025.
- Eviction Hotspot. According to a new article from the Baltimore Banner, one in three evictions at all large multifamily apartment complexes in Anne Arundel County takes place in the 1.5 square miles of monotonous apartment complexes around the University of Maryland Medical Center. In that same neighborhood, an apartment complex called The Forest has become a focal point of a crisis facing low-income tenants throughout Maryland.
- Legal Services and Evictions. The DC Bar Foundation has released its biannual progress report on the Civil Legal Counsel Projects Program (CLCPP), a grant program established to provide legal assistance to DC residents with low incomes facing eviction proceedings or the loss of a housing subsidy. Among other things, the report pointed out that CLCPP attorneys shifted their services to help tenants mitigate the legal consequences of eviction contributing to favorable case outcomes, over 90% of those who wished to stay in their rental unit able to do.
- AI Tools and Legal Services. The Employment Law Center of Maryland has adopted CoCounsel, an AI tool developed by Casetext, to assist with legal research, drafting contracts and reviewing documents. The Law Center aims to use the tool to make legal assistance more affordable and accessible to people, as the tool uses plain language to make legal jargon easier to understand. While some welcome the use of AI in the delivery of legal services, others have raised concerns about eliminating the human element of lawyering and giving AI confidential information.
- Estate Plans. Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed a bill granting unmarried domestic partners the same rights as married spouses in probate matters. The new law allows one partner to inherit the other’s assets and recognizes their children as legal offspring. The legislation aims to give financial relief to surviving domestic partners, especially those who can’t afford estate planning. The law will take effect on October 1st, 2023, and will not change how couples file their state or federal taxes.
- EBT Reimbursements. Governor Wes Moore has announced that the state will expand assistance to Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cardholders whose benefits were stolen as far back as January 1, 2021. The law extends the reimbursement eligibility period by 21 months. Previously denied claims will be reviewed, and eligible transactions will be paid starting July 1, 2023. For more information, visit the Maryland Department of Human Services website
- AAPT Communities and A2J. NNew survey from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center has helped gain more understanding around how discrimination impacts the AAPI community. Based on the results of the survey, advocates have proposes a series of comprehensive solutions such as adopting new measures that increase language outreach to AAPI communities and reduce language barriers.
- Right to Counsel Movement. A number of states and municipalities have introduced laws and programs that provide tenants with a right to counsel, but tenants in those jurisdictions tenants still go without legal help because there aren’t enough lawyers signed up to support these new programs. “The program is extremely successful when it works,” said Adriene Holder, chief attorney of the civil practice at the Legal Aid Society, “but right now we’re still turning away thousands of people because of the lack of capacity.”
- Right to Counsel for Children. Oftentimes “the one person at the center of a child protection case -the person who the government can physically remove from their family and take into custody -is also the one person who does not get their own attorney.” A new report from the National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) discusses the importance of legal counsel for children in the child protection system. Although children involved in the juvenile legal system have had the right to legal counsel since 1967, children in the child protection system do not have the same rights.
- Legal Tech. Legal service organizations in Texas partner with A2J Tech (a company that builds legal technology to improve access to justice) to have Legal kiosks installed across the state. The Texas Legal Services Center’s new Virtual Court Access Project aims to help low-income and rural Texans participate in virtual court proceedings using kiosks. With almost 45% of rural low-income Texans lacking access to computers, the kiosks will provide a virtual legal aid center, connecting residents to legal resources and necessary devices to attend hearings at no cost.
- Legal Tech Cont’d. Artificial Intelligence in Legal Tech event: learn about the latest AI advancements in legal tech and gain valuable insights into their legal and ethical impacts. Discover how AI is transforming the legal landscape and what it means for legal professionals and society as a whole. Register HERE
- Medical Debt Crisis. Medical debt represents 58% of all debts in collections in the US due to things like surprise medical bills and barriers to charitable care and assistance programs, and research has shown that medical debt not only widens the wealth gap but can also trap entire families in a cycle of financial insecurity. In a recently released report, the CFPB found that removing medical debt collections for consumers with $500 or under of medical debt on their report would lead to an average 25 point increase and increased access to credit.
- A2J and Fair Housing. Most would agree that access to safe, affordable, and quality housing is a basic necessity for the health and stability of families and communities. Unfortunately, housing insecurity and injustice remains a significant issue for vulnerable communities in many parts of the United States. A new article from the ACLU entitled, Why Fair Housing is Key to Systemic Equality, breaks down why fair housing is critical to the fight for systemic equality and the different ways discrimination continues to impact access to housing today.
- Video Surveillance and Public Housing Evictions. Surveillance cameras purchased with federal crime-fighting grants are being used to punish and evict public housing residents, sometimes for minor rule violations, a Washington Post investigation found. In an email, HUD spokeswoman Christina Wilkes said the agency never intended its safety and security grants to be used to punish residents for lease violations. But she added that such usage “is not a violation of the grant terms.”
- Artificial Intelligence and A2J. On the latest episode of LSC’s “Talk Justice” podcast, special guests Sam Flynn, COO and co-founder of the no-code automation platform, Josef; Natalie Anne Knowlton, founder of Access to Justice Ventures; and Tom Martin, CEO and founder of the no-code AI platform, LawDroid, discuss AI’s potential for access to justice and the potential impact of generative AI on legal services
- AI and A2J Con’t. Advances in conversational AI and large language models like GPT-4 are changing the legal profession, while proponents note that AI can tackle complex legal tasks and provide useful insights, critics point out that there are known risks, such as replicating biases in existing data sets, and the potential for unauthorized practice of law.
- AI Pitfalls and A2J. DoNotPay, a Silicon Valley company that claimed their AI technology could help people win traffic court cases, faced backlash when it was revealed that the CEO exaggerated the capabilities of the technology. While critics cite the scandal as a a cautionary tale, legal and justice tech advocates argue that innovative tehnology-based solutions are needed to help address the lack of access to legal help -with data showing that many Americans do not receive legal help for critical issues like medical debt, eviction, and foreclosures.
- Active Judging in Evictions. As a tool, advocates and judges have noted that active judging has been particularly effective in landlord-tenant court because tenants often face power imbalances and asymmetries in information related to eviction courtroom proceedings. In a recent event, from the National Center for State Courts, judges from three different jurisdictions discussed how they have adopted principles of active judging to increase understanding, ensure due process, and expand access to resources for litigants in eviction court. The panelist judges outlined several techniques that can be used to address the myriad of obstacles litigants may encounter in the eviction court process.