The March/April Issue
In this month’s A2J Dispatch, we celebrate some of our legislative wins including additional funding for Maryland’s Access to Counsel in Evictions law, we highlight the work of some of A2JC’s Committees; we revisit the issue of tax sales and their impact on vulnerable communities; we explore legal Ai tools in the legal services space, and we learn about MDCourt’s Guide & File Tool for Self-Represented Litigants, all this and more in this month’s issue of the A2JC Dispatch.
A2J Commission News
- ACE Funding for FY 24 -27. In 2022 we prevailed in securing $25.8M in start-up funding for the ACE Law through FY2024, but we knew then what we also know now: that funding is the lynchpin to successful implementation of the ACE program. That is why securing stable and continuous funding for ACE was our top legislative priority for the 2023 legislative session! This year, A2JC rallied leaders from Maryland’s civil legal aid organizations, and we called on legislators to act again to ensure stable and continuous funding for the ACE law. Today we are proud to report that after months of dogged advocacy, Maryland’s General Assembly has enacted SB756 and the legislation has been sent to the Governor’s desk for signature. The bill extends funding distributions through fiscal year 2027 and adds an additional $56 million in civil legal aid funding towards implementing Maryland’s Access to Counsel in Evictions program. Special thanks to the MSBA, Maryland’s civil legal aid providers, our sponsors and other justice partners who joined the effort to urge lawmakers to act through, among other things, task force reporting, hours of testimony and concerted social media campaigns online. Our work over the past few years in educating elected officials about the civil justice crisis has helped create these important strides in ensuring access to counsel for Marylanders facing eviction.
- A2JC DLS Committee – 2023 Legislative Session. The DLS Committee was very busy this year, taking positions and offering testimony on a number of bills, including SB756 ACE Funding and HB328/SB112 State Finance and Procurement – Grants – Prompt Payment Requirement. Both pieces of legislation have been sent to the Govenor’s desk for signature!
- A2JC Data & Legal Tech Committee. This month, A2JC’s Data & Legal Tech Committee hosted a brief Info Session on AI and Similar Tools with Professor Colin Starger, the Director of UB Law’s Legal Data & Design Clinic. During the event Starger discussed the background and basics of ChatGPT and similar AI tools that have recently exploded onto the scene.
- Join Us at the MSBA Legal Summit in Ocean City! Mark your Calendars for these programs at the MSBA Legal Summit in Ocean City! Over the past two years, the Access to Justice Commission has secured more than $40M to ensure Maryland’s most vulnerable citizens have access to attorneys. You can help support this important work by joining us for this fun, family-friendly event. A draft of the 2023 Legal Summit Program Schedule is now available! Also this year, the DLS Committee is hosting a session at the MSBA Legal Summit. Engage with a moderated panel of experts and practitioners sharing practical tips for building an inclusive practice that is accessible to all, with an emphasis on reducing barriers for people with disabilities. Come away with a list of low-cost, easily implemented, concrete strategies and resources for your practice.
- MDCourts Implement Key Recommendation from the Consumer Protection Committee of the COVID-19 Task Force. Recommendations from joint the COVID-19 Task Force continue to improve access to justice for marylanders that come into contact with the civil justice system! Back in 2021 the Consumer Protection Committee of the COVID-19 Task Force made a number of recommendations including a changes to update the notice on the back of the court Complaint form (which is among the first documents received by a debtor when they are sued in District Court). With the new changes incorporated, the updated Complaint form now provides consumers with crucial information that explains the burden of proof, provides information about free help, and informs consumers about the consequences for failing to appear.
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.
- MDCourts Guide & File Tool and Self-Represented Litigants. Did you know there was an easy way for self-represented litigants to keep complete court forms? Maryland Guide & File is a tool developed by the Maryland Courts that guides the user through a series of plain language questions called an “interview.” Like TurboTax, the interview uses the person’s answers to generate a complete packet of forms. The interview includes links to definitions and helpful information. When the user is done, the program automatically generates all the forms needed, along with detailed instructions on what to do next. Completed forms can be filed with the court. Some forms can be e-filed directly from the application. To give it a try, visit www.mdcourts.gov/guideandfile.
Local A2J News
- Tax Sales. According to research from the Baltimore Banner, nearly 41,000 properties have gone through the Baltimore’s tax sale system since 2016, and most affected homes are located in Black neighborhoods. But, for a small group of investors, tax sale season means scoring easy profits. Some tax lien investors even target “higher-value properties that homeowners are more likely to redeem, and collect exorbitant interest when they do.”
- Expungement. Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) was recently granted $542,775 from the Maryland Legal Services Corporation to implement a statewide outreach, education and referral network to help expunge the criminal records of Marylanders charged with cannabis-related violations. “We welcome this change in the law that will further reduce employment barriers for many Marylanders and appreciate the General Assembly’s recognition that education, outreach and legal assistance play critical roles in stabilizing communities,” said MVLS Executive Director Susan Francis. The constitutional amendment that authorizes the adult use and possession of cannabis in Maryland goes into effect July 1, 2023.
- Food Insecurity. Anne Wallerstedt and Daniel Sturm from the Maryland Food Bank continue to sound the alarm on food insecurity in Maryland. In a recent article, they note that 1 in 3 Marylanders and their families are facing food insecurity. They also point to recent data from the Meal Gap Study, where the group Feeding America reported “that Maryland food insecurity rates are more than three times as high for Black individuals compared to white individuals.”
- Access to Counsel in Foreclosure Proceedings. During this past legislative session, lawmakers considered expanding the Maryland’s access to counsel program to include homeowners facing foreclosure. “Foreclosure is a process with many discrete steps . . . [h]aving an attorney explain all options will both ensure homeowners have their rights enforced and make the process more efficient.” said Deb Seltzer, Executive Director of the Maryland Legal Services Corporation. Despite strong support from members of the civil legal aid community, SB904/HB0225 fell short of becoming law.
- DC Courts and Pro Bono. The DC Courts announced the hiring of its first-ever pro bono program manager, Jodie Feldman. With more than two decades of pro bono experience Feldman will help shape the role and expand the availability of pro bono and affordable legal services to D.C. litigants, she plans to use her new role and her passion for pro bono services to bridge the gap between lawyers who want to help and litigants who need legal services.
- Legal Advice and Housing. Last month, the Utah Supreme Court announced a new project aimed at helping people access free legal advice on housing issues. The Housing Stability Legal Advocate (HSLA) Pilot Program will train and certify non-lawyers working within community-based organizations as HSLAs, bridging the gap in access to justice for vulnerable populations. The Program will focus on a number of key areas including, issue spotting for housing stability issues during intake and providing legal advice and assistance related to other state and federal assistance programs.
- WH Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable Issues Report to the President. For many gaining access to critical public benefits and program means navigating the civil legal system with its long and complex forms; confusing policies and processes; inaccessible websites; and long wait times for customer service – all without a lawyer. The Justice Department recently released the 2022 Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable Report which highlights how simplifying forms and processes can be a crucial step towards closing the justice gap. The report identifies a three-step simplification roadmap to help federal agencies expand access to government programs and services.
- Legal Ai Tools. Last month in an episode of the Legal Rebels podcast, Jake Heller the CEO and co-founder of Casetext (a legal AI company), spoke about its AI legal assistant CoCounsel. With its new technology, Casetext claims “lawyers can reliably delegate substantive, complex work to an AI assistant—just as they would to a legal professional—and trust the results.”
- Legal Ai Tools and Legal Aid. In a recent Law360 article, Michael Semanchik, managing attorney at the California Innocence Project, discusses how a beta testing of CooCounsel (a program created by legal research company Casetext), helped his organization quickly digest and summarize hundreds of documents. “We can’t read the [court] reporter’s transcript on every single case. It’s just not feasible given our resources,” Semanchik said. “But if an AI can tell me what a case is about without having to rely on a human that might miss some major things, and then at the same time, I can also search it, for us, that’s such a time saver.”
- NCSC Event: Family-Centered Friday Series. On April 28th, the National Center for State Courts hosts its second installment of its Family-Centered Fridays Series. Hillary Lantrip Croft, Assistant County Attorney-Juvenile Prosecutor, Hopkins County Attorney’s Office in Kentucky will lead the discussion on how prosecutors, court staff, and community stakeholders can collaborate in serving justice beyond the courtroom by recognizing the barriers families are facing and acting as the “connector” to the resources they need.
- NY and Holdover Evictions. Throwing an elderly couple out on the street might be monstrous, but it’s perfectly legal in New York State through a mechanism called holdover eviction. For nearly three decades, Vivian Thomas Smith and her husband, Bradley lived in a modest one-bedroom at 2420 Morris Avenue in the Bronx., but on December 1, 2021, the Smiths got a letter offering them an ultimatum: buy your apartment or leave when the lease expired on March 31, 2022. “The more than 32,000 holdover eviction cases brought before New York State housing courts in 2022 represent a small sliver of the problem; unable to afford the stress and financial costs of a legal battle, many tenants just pack up and leave.”
- A2Counsel, Immigration, and Bond Proceedings. Attorneys from the DOJ have asserted before a D.C. federal judge that no constitutional right to counsel exists for detained immigrants in bond proceedings. The argument comes out a lawsuit from the Southern Poverty Law Center alleging several immigration detention centers have hindering attorney access, the case deals with the question of whether detained immigrants are constitutionally entitled to counsel in bond proceedings.