The September Issue
September is Hunger Action Month. This month we work to increase awareness around food insecurity and the fight against hunger in Maryland and across the United States – and what an attorney has to do with it. We also explore a national study that reveals that two-thirds of Americans across all income levels experienced at least one legal problem in the past four years and the latest on the eviction crisis, the fight for unemployment benefits and more.
A2J Commission News
One of the key recommendations coming out of The COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force Report was to have a “coordinated call to action to increase pro bono services to respond to the spike in the need for civil legal aid services (e.g., civil legal assistance with food, unemployment and veterans benefits) arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.” To answer the call and learn about training and service opportunities, click here.
Victoria Schultz, Associate Dean for Administration at the University of Baltimore School of Law, who serves as an A2J Commissioner, was named as Chair of the Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force. The Task Force will commence its work on October 1, 2021. A2J Commissioner Erek Barron, who currently serves in Maryland House of Delegates and is an attorney at Whiteford, Taylor and Preston, was nominated by President Biden and approved by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to become the next U.S. Attorney from Maryland. A2J Commissioner, Donald B. Tobin, announced his decision to step down at the end of the 2021-2022 academic year as the Dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and return to full-time teaching as a faculty member of law school.
Governor Larry Hogan has named Joseph M. Getty to succeed Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, who reached mandatory retirement age on September 10. Judge Getty’s tenure will last until he reaches the mandatory age of retirement in April 2022. The A2J Commission looks forward to continuing its longstanding work of engaging with the judiciary to increase access to justice in Maryland. We welcome Chief Judge Getty to his new post and look forward to a strong partnership to move critical access to justice issues forward.
This month, we explore what civil legal aid has to do with ensuring that our neighbors do not go hungry. We meet Jane and Patricia (names edited to protect privacy), both of whom became ensnared in the civil justice system while attempting to get SNAP food benefits to feed their families. They did not have access to food for months and tried to navigate federal and local laws to receive benefits to which they were entitled to within the span of 30 days. Their resilience led them to a civil legal aid organization, HPRP, that was able to appeal their wrongful denials and get them on a path to have a means to feed their family. Read the full story here: https://www.msba.org/preventing-hunger-civil-legal-aid/.
Local A2J News
- Eviction Crisis. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month to end the Biden Administration’s ban on evictions, millions are facing housing instability and homelessness. Although Maryland lawmakers approved legislation for tenants to receive counsel when facing eviction proceedings, fair housing advocates are urging Governor Hogan to fund the Access to Counsel in Evictions program as courts work through a backlog of eviction cases and federal rental assistance money is slow to get to tenants and landlords.
- Funding for Access to Counsel in Evictions. Although the Maryland General Assembly enacted legislation providing counsel in potential cases of evictions earlier this year, the companion legislation to provide funding for the initiative unfortunately died in Maryland’s House of Delegates. While prospects for a revival of the funding bill in the 2022 legislative session are high, advocates suggest that an even better course of action exists — Governor Hogan can implement measures that would allow millions of dollars in federal rent relief funds to be used to fund the access to counsel program, ensuring tenants to have legal counsel in evictions cases.
- Landlords Refuse Rental Assistance Stipulations. Billions of federal dollars are now available for eviction prevention, but it seems some landlords are reluctant to take the funds. Under the emergency rental assistance program, landlord concessions like 90-day provision not to evict tenants are considered critical to the success of the program, but some landlords are “ balking at certain stipulations in the rental assistance contract.”
- Life Planning. Mid-Shore Pro Bono, a non-profit organization on Maryland’s Eastern Shore has launched the “Life Planning For All,” initiative to assist local families with legal, financial and health care directives, at no charge. A2JC, in working with the Attorney General’s Access to Justice Task Force, also developed a Life and Health Planning Handbook to help Marylanders navigate complex life and health planning issues.
- The Fight for Unemployment Benefits. After winning an injunction against Governor Hogan, and forcing his administration to continue paying out federal unemployment benefits through September 6, thousands of unemployed Marylanders are still battling the state in court claiming that they have yet to receive unemployment benefits as filed benefits claims await review.
- Mobile Civil Legal Services. Baltimore County Public Library’s Mobile Library Law Center, serves as a mobile legal office made up of lawyers from Maryland Legal Aid. The program, which bridges the justice gap between the civil legal needs of low-income individuals and the resources to meet those needs, provides free civil legal services in areas like bankruptcy, expungements, government benefits, housing, landlord/tenant, veterans’ benefits, and unemployment benefits.
- Attorneys Fees and Access to Courts. Maryland’s Office of the Attorney General recently released an invoice for attorneys fees owed to the attorneys that defended Gov. Hogan’s unsuccessful attempt to put an early end to the federal unemployment benefits program for Marylanders. The move exposes the imbalance between who can afford justice and who cannot, as plaintiffs trying to keep their unemployment benefits relied on pro bono and low bono legal aid attorneys.
- Legal Assistance for Victims. Heartly House in Frederick, House of Ruth in Baltimore,and the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault in Silver Spring are set to receive Department of Justice grant funding to address violence against women. The grant funds will be used to ensure long term legal services to victims and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence in areas such as family law, housing and employment and enable “victims and survivors to achieve lasting safety and economic independence for themselves and their families.”says Acting US Attorney for Maryland, Jonathan Lenzner.
National A2J News
- Nationwide A2J Study. Two-thirds of Americans across all income levels experienced at least one legal problem in the past four years, according to a new nationwide justice needs study. The study provides detailed information about the extent of the country’s access to justice crisis and provides important insights into the problems that people experience. The study’s findings stem from an online survey of 10,058 Americans conducted last year.
- 40 Law schools join Tenant Assistance Planning Group. Days after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a call for the legal professionals to step up and help those facing eviction, an army of volunteer legal professionals, including lawyers from nearly 40 law schools and another 20 or so organizations that deal with housing issues, stepped up saying they wanted to help and join in a national planning group focused on how law students can help tenants.
- Technology and the A2J Gap. In an episode of NBC Chicago’s “The Path Forward,” reporter LeeAnn Trotter joined Rohan Pavuluri, CEO of Upsolve, a nonprofit that has developed an online web app that helps individuals file for bankruptcy for free on their own in instances where they cannot afford a lawyer. Together, they discussed the access to justice gap and the nonprofit’s mission to leverage technology and empower low-income and working-class families to access their civil legal rights and achieve economic mobility.
- Pandemic increased State and Local Court Backlogs. The average case backlog for state and local courts across the United States increased by about one-third amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report released by Thomson Reuters. Nationwide, judges and other court professionals found that the average backlog in U.S. courts before the COVID-19 pandemic was 958 cases, and had increased to 1,274 in the last year.
- Opioid Crisis and Medical-Legal Partnerships during the Pandemic. Legal Services Corporation (LSC) President, Ron Flagg discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the opioid crisis with a panel of experts guests on this episode of Talk Justice, an LSC podcast. Together the panel, discuss the particular vulnerabilities of people with opioid use disorder and how the COVID-19 pandemic led to increases in drug overdose deaths and a decrease in individuals’ ability to access vital medical services and medical-legal partnerships, which are crucial community-based referral systems that connect lawyers with people in recovery that need legal aid.
- A2J and Education. Education experts across the country have said that it may take months or years to fully grasp the learning loss that children have suffered from remote schooling during the pandemic. Although some complaints and lawsuits against state and city education departments have been filed across the country, “many families across the country — especially lower-income ones — may give up or may not fight schools for more services, even if students need them,” says Leslie Margolis, an attorney with Disability Rights Maryland who has worked on compensatory education cases.
- Legal Services without the Costs of Advanced Study. ABA and state bar requirements, like taking the state bar exam and graduating from a 3-year accredited law school, establish a minimum standard of quality for lawyers and ensure clients receive competent representation. Could lowering the bar for individuals who don’t go to law school could expand access to justice by providing inexpensive civil legal help to people who otherwise wouldn’t consider hiring a lawyer because of the cost?