The November Issue
In this month’s issue of the A2J Dispatch, we explore how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing financial issues for low-income families and why having a lawyer is important to ensuring equity and fairness in civil debt collection lawsuits, where almost 90% of cases end in a default judgment against the defendant, with fewer than 10% of defendants having legal representation.
This continues the work from the A2JC Covid-19 Taskforce Report, where we outlined how responses to the COVID-19 pandemic should be designed to help address disparities in access and outcomes that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The Biden Administration’s recently released 2021 Access to Justice in the Age of COVID-19 Roundtable Report also shows us that across the board the numbers are clear, access to meaningful counsel and legal assistance, in everything from evictions and foreclosures cases to debt collection cases, is important to ensure the civil justice system works fairly and equitably for all.
A2J Commission News
Chief Judge Getty Attends A2JC Meeting. The new chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals joins the Access to Justice Commission meeting to discuss ways in which the Commission and judiciary can work together to advance access to justice in Maryland.
A Key Recommendation from the AG’s A2JC Task Force Comes to Fruition. In the final Task Force Report, we recommended that the U.S. DOJ re-establish the Access to Justice Office. We thank our U.S. delegation for supporting this effort. On October 29, 2021, U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland announced the restoration of a standalone Office for Access to Justice within the Department of Justice (for more details, see DOJ Press Release of October 29, 2021). Attorney General Garland previewed that more is to come, because “[a]ccess to justice today may require different tools and initiatives and a different office structure than it did a decade ago.” On the same day, the DOJ also publicly released the Attorney General’s Report to the President Pursuant to the President’s Memorandum on Restoring the Department of Justice’s Access-to-Justice Function (dated September 15, 2021). In this Report, Attorney General Garland describes the results of the Justice Department’s extensive 120-day stakeholder review, that “surfaced significant gaps in equal access to justice and revealed inequities that have become exacerbated as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force. The Access to Counsel Task Force, which went into effect on October 1, 2021, continues at a fast clip to study and make recommendations on how best to implement HB18, the Access to Counsel in Evictions law, in Maryland. The Task Force has already made and taken action on two interim recommendations, due to their time-sensitivity and the urgency of the need: first, it sent a letter to Governor Hogan to invest $12M in federal funding to jump start the program; second, it recommended that MLSC deliver an RFP to assess the program. The Task Force continues to work through three committees, including the Funding Committee; the Implementation Committee; and the Outreach & Assessment Committee. A final report of the Task Force will be delivered to the Governor and the Legislature by January, 2022.
Affordable Law Task Force. The Maryland State Bar Association and the Maryland Access to Justice Commission are partnering to launch The Affordable Law Task Force to address the access to justice needs of Marylanders of modest means. Many more Marylanders – of low and modest means – are interacting with the civil justice system in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Marylanders who can neither access free legal aid nor afford standard attorneys fees, legal representation is simply out of reach. The Task Force will seek to identify solutions to address this gaping need.
This month, we meet Cindy, an elderly Baltimore City resident, who received a summons to show up to court due to a debt that was owed to a bail bond company. While waiting for her turn before the judge, Cindy listened to the judge’s statements about what legal defenses defendants could and couldn’t raise and she quickly realized she needed a lawyer. Read Cindy’s full story here.
We know Cindy is one of many Marylanders facing civil legal issues related to consumer law. Individuals and families with debts that end up in collections are oftentimes mistakenly viewed as having made poor personal financial choices. In reality, and what the pandemic has taught us is that, debt can become difficult to manage for any household, especially when experiencing emergencies, surprise expenditures or reductions in income.
Here are some other life situations that lead to consumer law issues in the civil justice system:
- Use an emergency credit card to buy food and medication, after experiencing job loss;
- Miss a few car note payments, after cutbacks at work led to reduced hours and pay;
- Fall behind on student or personal loans payments, after an unexpected trip to the hospital led to new medical bills;
- Owe a past debt for healthcare services that weren’t covered by an employee plan;
- Unknowingly become responsible for a debt after serving as a cosigner on a loved one’s loan;
- Incur additional expenses they thought they could cover but couldn’t because they unexpectedly had to retire early due to health concerns;
- Inherit increased financial responsibility after the loss of a contributing household member.
Local A2J News
- Evictions. Nearly 21,000 households in Baltimore County are behind on rent and at-risk of eviction according to U.S. Census Household Data. The Pro Bono Resource Center (PBRC) is urging attorneys to get involved and assist tenants in rent court noting that too many tenants often show up to court “not knowing whether they will leave without a home to which they can return,” says Katherine Davis, Courtroom Advocacy Project Director at PBRC and many more are “unaware of their rights as renters or of the critical rental assistance funds that are available to them.” Read more (page 27) in the Baltimore County Bar Association’s Newsletter entitled The Advocate.
- Medical Debt Protection. Marceline White, Executive Director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition joins the hosts of WEAA’s Two Way Talk show to discuss Maryland’s Medical Debt Protection Act and the public awareness campaign designed to help people struggling with medical debt better understand their rights.
- Schools and Disability Rights. Advocates note that some parents struggle to know what rights their child has as a student in public school and it can be especially challenging for parents of kids with disabilities. Lawyers with Disability Rights MD, a nonprofit organization that advocates for improvement in the lives of Marylanders with disabilities, spell out a few red flags that parents should look out for.
- Pro Bono Services and the Pandemic. The most recent Pro Bono report from the Maryland Judiciary shows that Maryland lawyers provided more than 1 million hours of pro bono services between July 2019 and June 2020. But new data shows that the proportion of lawyers who provided those services fell to just below 40%, down from 41% in the previous reporting period and about 45% in the three previous years. Nearly three-quarters of all pro bono services reported went toward directly helping people of limited means or assisting organizations that serve those populations.
- Inmates’ Rights. A recent lawsuit, brought by the advocacy group Disability Rights Maryland, asks a judge to halt the use of solitary confinement on people with severe mental illness, the suit alleges that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is denying mentally ill prisoners access to regular prison services while in confinement.
- Community Lawyering. Meaghan McDermott, Chief Attorney at Maryland Legal Aid joins WEAA’s Two Way Talk to the organization’s civil legal services, including its Lawyer in the Library initiative, the goal of which is to bring free, civil legal services and help for criminal record expungements directly to underserved communities. For upcoming clinics and events visit https://www.mdlab.org.
- Funding and Nonprofit Management. After facing an almost 50% income shortfall for the 2021 fiscal year, the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC), which funds 36 nonprofit organizations that provide civil legal aid to low-income Marylanders, takes new steps to discern clients’ needs in the midsts of the pandemic and identify how best to help grantee-organizations assess how they handle the needs of their clients.
National A2J News
- Right to Counsel. In 2017 the New York City implemented its Right to Counsel initiative which provides free legal services, including representation, to tenants facing eviction in housing court. Today, the data shows that the overwhelming majority of tenants who receive NYCity-funded legal representation are successful in their legal proceedings, with 84% of households represented by a Right to Counsel lawyer able to remain in their homes.
- The Digital Divide. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused courts—previously slow to adopt new technology—to leap into prioritizing digital services. As legal aid and court services increase the use of online tools, there is a concern that people without access to technology and high-speed internet will be left behind. This gap, referred to as the “digital divide,” is the topic of the latest Talk Justice episode, entitled The Digital Divide and Legal Aid Access.
- Legal Information. The PEW Charitable Trusts is partnering with Stanford University Law School and Suffolk University Law School to improve the availability, accessibility, and usability of online legal information and court forms. This work seeks to develop technology reforms that can help courts serve more people, and pair those changes with improvements to associated court processes in order to enhance people’s experiences and interactions with the legal system. The work asserts that clear information can help millions of Americans access the civil legal system.
- Evictions. More than 8 million people are behind on rent and are now at greater risk of losing their homes now that the federal moratorium is no longer protecting them. Even as government aid to renters has increased, housing advocates continue pushing for stronger eviction protections noting that a lot more people need the help and many are running out of time as the eviction crisis unfolds.
- Health Justice. Pisgah Legal Services Health Justice program, helps people in Western North Carolina sign up for health insurance by providing free health insurance information and enrollment assistance. Shannon Cornelius, Pisgah Legal’s Health Justice Program Director says that recent changes in the law have enabled “people who never qualified in the past are finding quality, affordable plans, and . . . [getting] coverage for themselves and their families.”
- Paraprofessional Licensure and A2J. Citing the vast “justice gap” between the need for civil legal services and the resources available, California’s Paraprofessional Program Working Group, put forth recommendations for creating a paraprofessional licensure/certification program to increase access to legal services for Californians navigating everyday legal problems.
- Veterans Legal Assistance. On a recent episode of All Sides with Ann Fisher, guests Angie Lloyd, Executive Director of Ohio Access to Justice Foundation, Karin Nordstrom a Veterans Law Attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, and Jenkins Smith, a U.S. Navy veteran discuss how the civil legal system can falls short when it come to veterans and how our most vulnerable veterans can be especially vulnerable to issues that require legal aid, including housing and health care benefits.
- Litigation Financing. When asked, 70% of lawyers that participated in Bloomberg Law’s 2021 Litigation Finance Survey agreed that litigation finance enables better access to justice. In a world where civil legal aid attorneys are stretched thin and pro bono budgets are tight, litigation financing could serve as a tool for plaintiffs and attorneys seeking to protect individuals’ rights.
- Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The PSLF Program is an important promise to provide debt relief to public servants, including civil legal aid workers that provide legal assistance to our nation’s most vulnerable. What significant new changes to Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) could mean for borrowers in light of recent guidance from the Biden Administration.
- Veterans Benefits and A2J. “Bad paper” discharges have led the VA to wrongfully deny former service members access to much-needed veterans benefits, like healthcare and mental health treatment. Unfortunately, navigating the maze-like discharge review process to gain access to critical veterans benefits can feel nearly impossible without the help of a legal professional or advocate. Learn more about the challenges service members face due to “bad paper” discharges on the latest episode of “Talk Justice,” the Legal Services Corporation’s (LSC) podcast.
- Healthcare Advocacy. CareFirst agrees to pay $95 million to create a fund to address health disparities 17 years after D.C. Appleseed, a small advocacy nonprofit that the insurance company was hoarding excess surpluses and shirking its obligation as a nonprofit to commit funds to addressing community health needs. “The disparities in health outcomes affecting underserved populations in the District are huge,” said Walter Smith, D.C. Appleseed Executive Director. “CareFirst has both the resources and the legal obligation to help address those disparities. We are glad they have at last agreed to do that.”
- Giving. Donations for ABA Giving Day more than double previous year’s total and FL attorney Mike Freed raised $405K this year and a total of $1.9M over the last 5 years by running a marathon from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, FL to help support the North Florida Medical Legal Partnership, which helps pediatric patients and their families facing legal obstacles that often impede their health outcomes.