A2J Dispatch – August/ September 2023 Issue

In this month’s A2J Dispatch, we invite you to join us at the A2JC DLS Committee’s Kick-off on Oct. 4 and explore the Affordable Law Task Force Report. We continue to explore how technology and AI are transforming the legal profession and how social justice issues connect to the civil justice system. Find all of this and more in this month’s issue of the A2JC Dispatch.

A2J Commission News

Join the A2JC’s New DLS Committee’s Kick-Off Event!

The A2JC’s Delivery of Legal Services Committee is excited to build a robust public interest and justice oriented community within the MSBA. Whether working in private practice, judiciary, government or a civil legal aid organization, the Committee welcomes MSBA members who are passionate about public interest law and an accessible, equitable and just legal system. Join us for our Kickoff on Oct. 4 from 12pm to 4pm in Annapolis. The event is free, but registration is required. Register Today! https://www.msba.org/product/a2jc-dls-kickoff/.

A2JC Releases Affordable Law Task Force Report.

Many access to justice efforts rightfully focus on providing free civil legal services to the most vulnerable among us, the 10% who fall below the Federal Poverty Line. But an additional 28% are the working poor and fall into what the United Way calls the “ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) threshold.” ALICE households do not make enough money to survive and meet their family’s basic needs – let alone hire legal help. Modest means Marylanders or households fall into a unique access to justice predicament: they make too much money to qualify for free civil legal aid, yet they do not make enough to be able to pay market rate for a lawyer. The result is a modest-means access to justice gap. Created by the MSBA and the A2JC, the Affordable Law Task Force was tasked with confronting this problem and recommending solutions. Read more here: https://www.msba.org/affordable-law-task-force-report/.

Tips from Maryland Judiciary’s Access to Justice Department

Accessibility in the Maryland Courts.

The Maryland Judiciary provides a broad range of accommodations to ensure all individuals, regardless of ability, can access the courts. Each court has an ADA Coordinator who can answer questions and provide assistance to persons with disabilities and their attorneys. Although Rule 1-332 requires the use of a form to request an accommodation, many accommodations can be provided upon oral request. Visit the Maryland Judiciary’s Accommodations web page for more information: https://www.mdcourts.gov/legalhelp/accommodations.

Local A2J News

Food Insecurity. The Food Research & Action Center reports that the average SNAP benefit will fall to just $6 a person a day. In Maryland, some 360,000 SNAP recipient households have started to feel the shortfall in SNAP benefits. Advocates are urging Congress and state administrations to bolster SNAP benefits to address food insecurity, an issue that often coincides with broader social justice issues like poverty and housing security. Many civil legal aid organizations assist SNAP recipients with applications and appeals. https://www.marylandmatters.org/2023/08/22/state-nationwide-hunger-relief-nonprofit-says-snap-benefits-equate-to-about-6-a-day-for-person/.

Water Bill Relief. Marylanders are still struggling to recover from financial setbacks caused by the pandemic. For eligible Baltimore City and County residents who accumulated water bill debt between January 2022 and September 2023, a new grant from Maryland’s State and Local Fiscal Relief Fund will fund debt relief credits on water bills for around 75,811 residents. https://www.wmar2news.com/local/mayor-scott-announces-15-million-in-state-funding-for-water-bill-debt-relief.

A2J, Reentry Post-Incarceration. Altimont Mark Wilks turned his life around after prison and opened Carmen’s Corner Store in a low-income Maryland neighborhood. But when money for his own food became an issue, Wilks found out he was ineligible for SNAP benefits due to his criminal record. His story highlights the access to justice issues individuals with a criminal record face. It reveals one of the many punitive barriers and systemic challenges for those looking to break the cycle of poverty and punishment post-incarceration.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/instituteforjustice/2023/08/09/letting-americans-with-records-make-a-fresh-start-can-help-us-all/?sh=189012cc6561

Tax Credit Awareness. The Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation (SDAT) is sending postcards to 145,000 homeowners and renters who might qualify for “forgotten” tax credits. The tax credits can mean substantial savings for families with limited income, but thousands of Marylanders who qualify need to be made aware of their eligibility. Now, organizations like Economic Action Maryland are assisting applicants in completing paperwork before the October 1 deadline. https://www.wmar2news.com/matterformallory/140-000-marylanders-may-qualify-for-forgotten-tax-credits.

Eviction Court. A recent article in the Baltimore Beat, authored by Baltimore Renters United Rent Court Watch, highlights the issue of “rocket docket” eviction hearings, where tenants often lack the opportunity to present their defense or understand their rights. The article, which recaps the case of Curtis Jones, whose eviction hearing lasted only a few minutes, sheds light on the existing representation gap between landlords and tenants, despite the right to counsel law in Maryland, as well as eviction laws, which allow agents of landlords to manage the eviction process in court without the landlord being present. https://baltimorebeat.com/the-lucrative-business-of-rent-court/.

A2J, Education and the ​​Teacher Shortage. Recent data indicates that the teacher supply isn’t keeping up with demand in Maryland. A new report entitled “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Retaining the Teachers Baltimore City Students Need” explores teacher burnout and retention challenges. With issues like low wages, heavy workloads, and declining new teacher numbers having worsened during the pandemic, it is possible that access to justice issues related to education, such as student rights, special education needs, and employment disputes, may have worsened as well. https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-821-baltimore-school-teacher-shortage-20230821-kjxyksu2b5b3tpmrs2gqilt2sa-story.html.

A2J and Remote Hearings. A recent article from the Daily Record’s Editorial Advisory Board urges readers to reevaluate remote hearings in certain cases and suggests providing criminal defendants. Among other things, the group argues that while remote hearings served a purpose during the pandemic, courts should use discretion to conduct remote hearings carefully to ensure due process and transparency. Paywall. https://thedailyrecord.com/2023/08/25/when-court-hearings-need-to-be-in-person/.

A2J and Disability Rights. Marylanders relying on mobility rides report issues with the state’s Paratransit Program. Now, the DOJ is investigating the Maryland Transit Administration’s (MTA) MobilityLink/Paratransit Program for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not providing comparable services to those offered to non-disabled individuals using the fixed route system. In a letter of findings to the MTA, the DOJ highlighted issues like untimely pickups, lengthy waits for phone reservations, and inadequate service levels. Local civil legal aid organizations provide legal help to ensure compliance with ADA. https://www.cbsnews.com/baltimore/news/mtas-mobilitylinkparatransit-program-investigated-after-disability-groups-file-complaint/.

National A2J News

Eviction Caseloads. According to a recent report from New York’s Universal Access Caseload Working Group, “an experienced, full-time tenant lawyer can effectively take on 48 eviction cases per year.” In the Report, the working group (which was established to develop objective guidelines for the number of cases that can be effectively handled by an attorney under New York City’s Universal Access program) “assumes 1,400 working hours per year, and describes a hypothetical seasoned attorney who dedicates all of their time to eviction defense.” Staff attorneys and managers at legal service providers have “emphasized that this seldom happens in practice” and have pointed out how existing budgetary constraints and high levels of eviction filings have already stretched the system, including its attorneys, too thin. https://citylimits.org/2023/09/05/report-explores-how-many-eviction-cases-one-lawyer-can-juggle/#UA-Caseload-Report.

Tenant’s Rights. In August, Maryland Legal Aid (MLA) and a coalition of non-profits filed an amicus brief in the Maryland Supreme Court case of Westminster Management, LLC v. Tenae Smith. The brief supports low-income tenants facing eviction and the case centers on whether “rent” can include extra charges tacked on by landlords. Among other things, the coalition argues that a landlord’s expenses beyond the basic periodic charge should not be considered rent, and doing so could result in homelessness, housing insecurity, and a number of other issues for tenants. https://www.mdlab.org/maryland-legal-aid-files-amicus-brief-to-protect-tenants-against-unreasonable-lease-provisions-and-eviction/.

Evictions. Earlier this month the Washington Post shared the story of Deana Woodward, a Baltimore homeowner. Woodward recently found out she and her son are facing eviction. An unpaid water bill caused her home, which Woodward has lived in her whole life, to be sold to a hedge fund and then to another buyer without her knowledge. And, even with new state and local laws that prevent Marylanders from losing their homes because of unpaid water bills, “Woodward and her son may be forced from the home because someone bought the property just a few months before the new laws went into effect.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2023/08/09/baltimore-eviction-kudow-stonefield/.

A2J Tech Accessibility. Join the A2J Tech Accessibility Team during their event on September 27th at 2pm EST as they discuss proven strategies to enhance the accessibility and inclusiveness of websites, web applications, and digital resources. Attendees are asked to embrace the future of legal technology by ensuring that your digital platforms are user-friendly for everyone. https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_PReEiZLKTcWhG8B9XIr_cQ#/registration.

A2J and Housing Discrimination. Megan Morse had hoped to move closer to her daughter and her primary hospital using a housing voucher. But, Ann Arbor landlords rejected her despite a local anti-discrimination ordinance. With the help of a law student from the University of Michigan, Morse is now suing one company citing bias and source-of-income discrimination. https://www.law360.com/access-to-justice/articles/1701942/section-8-tenants-are-using-new-laws-to-fight-housing-bias.

AI and Access to Justice. Legal service providers continue to ask whether artificial intelligence is capable of aiding in the expansion of access to justice. A recent article in “Justice Rising” by Johnathan Hill explores the rapid progress of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) and explores Hill’s perspective on the topic, including why he thinks preparing legal professionals and their clients for an evolving legal landscape shaped by technology is critical. https://medium.com/@LSCEmergingLeadersCouncil/embrace-the-future-let-ai-be-your-ally-in-the-pursuit-of-justice-e8f522770a71.

Renter’s Rights Cont’d. Residents of two West Baltimore apartment buildings are suing the property owners and a management company, alleging the companies refuse to address persistent rodent infestations and make needed repairs. The two buildings are both for low-income residents whose rents are subsidized by the federal government. Paywall. https://www.baltimoresun.com/business/bs-bz-apartment-complex-lawsuit-20230824-dgzekygdgnb7ng3zvkkmkbuvw4-story.html.

Post-Pandemic Challenges to Access. The end of pandemic safety net programs has led to increasing homelessness and food insecurity across the country. Many organizations that once received government support are now struggling to meet the rising demands of those in need. A recent article from the Washington Post reports that “Marylanders are among the last to feel the effects of federal aid drying up.” The article goes on to detail how some Marylanders are grappling with the challenges of finding stable housing and employment in the aftermath of it all. https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2023/08/07/maryland-cares-act-covid-relief-rescue-plan-ending/.

Youth & A2J. On the latest “Talk Justice” podcast episode by LSC, experts including Taylor Sartor and Rebekka Behr discussed the new “FosterPower” initiative in Florida. This platform offers foster youth access to legal information, enhancing awareness of their legal rights. https://legaltalknetwork.com/podcasts/talk-justice/.

A2J and Domestic Violence. When an abuser is able to get a gun in a domestic violence case, the consequences can be fatal. Recognizing this, a group of former chief state judges has asked the U.S. Supreme Court “to undo a Fifth Circuit decision holding that a law allowing the disarmament of domestic abusers violates the Second Amendment.” In a brief filed with the court the former chief state judges note that the disarmament law and others like it serve to protect vulnerable people as well as the integrity of the courts and state laws that have traditionally disarmed lawbreakers and other dangerous people for the safety of others. https://www.law360.com/access-to-justice/articles/1713504.

Expungement and A2J. Expungement is an important first step for people with criminal records looking for a chance at a clean slate. Earlier this month the Goodwill Opportunity Center and Kentucky Legal Aid hosted a clinic providing free expungement services. Expunging records in Kentucky usually costs $300 to $600, a significant hurdle for those seeking a clean slate. Many Maryland civil legal aid organizations offer expungement services to low-income Marylanders for free. https://www.paducahsun.com/news/goodwill-and-kentucky-legal-aid-work-to-help-people-start-expungement-process/article_836a6bca-f3cc-5a55-a235-7e347b465e62.html.

Housing Insecurity. In a recently published article from the Center for American Progress (CAP), author Cleo Bluthenthal discusses how “eviction—defined as the court-ordered removal of a tenant from the property where they reside — has been a substantial driver of housing insecurity for Black Americans,” especially Black women. The article proposes several suggestions to help address the issue, including ensuring legal representation for tenants. https://www.americanprogress.org/article/the-disproportionate-burden-of-eviction-on-black-women/?emci=c2996409-4a3c-ee11-a3f1-00224832eb73&emdi=ea000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000001&ceid=13353087.