A2JC Volunteer Spotlight: Emily Myers, 2L UMDLaw
My name is Emily Myers, and I am Access to Justice’s newest volunteer. I’m a rising 2L at Maryland, and for two years, I worked in the civil division of the clerk’s office at the Baltimore City Circuit Court. Access to Justice’s mission immediately resonated with me. Unrepresented plaintiffs and defendants face nearly insurmountable barriers when trying to win civil cases in the circuit court, and Maryland has one of the most accessible court systems in the U.S., according to the National Center for Access to Justice. Here, I want to focus on the challenges unrepresented plaintiffs face when pursuing a civil case in circuit court. In fact, I can only think of one pro se plaintiff who won a case while I was working at the court, and that plaintiff was an attorney, so I’m not sure that really counts. But most unrepresented plaintiffs don’t even make it to having their cases decided on the merits. Most commonly, I saw plaintiffs get tripped up by having their filing fee waivers denied, or by failing to properly serve the opposing party.
The filing fee for a civil case in the Baltimore City Circuit Court is $165, which is a lot of money. There’s also a filing fee waiver available. The waiver itself is fairly straightforward, but getting it granted isn’t. Filing a complaint that follows the Maryland Rules of Civil Procedure in their entirety is the hard part. For example, Rule 2-305 states that “A pleading that sets forth a claim for relief… shall contain a clear statement of the facts necessary to constitute a cause of action and a demand for judgment for the relief sought.” That’s not really a whole lot of guidance on what goes in a complaint, not to mention that it doesn’t explain what a cause of action or demand for judgment even is. Then there’s the minor details, like numbering all of the paragraphs (Rule 2-303), making a demand for a jury trial (Rule 2-325), and including a phone number in your signature block (Rule 1-311). Having a form that at least laid out the basic requirements for a complaint would be a huge step forward, but there’s no form for civil circuit court complaints.
Even if a plaintiff pays the $165, or has their filing fee waiver granted, serving the writ of summons is another huge obstacle for plaintiffs. The summons get sent to plaintiffs with no instructions. And again, the Maryland Rules aren’t terribly helpful. Rule 2-121 is titled “Process—Service—in Personam” and Rule 2-122 is about in rem or quasi in rem service. Those concepts were confusing when I had a professor teach them to me after two years of working in the courthouse, so I’d guess they’re not terribly accessible to the average layperson. Then, there are separate rules about who can serve summons (Rule 2-123), who has to be served (Rule 2-124), and filing proof of service with the court (Rule 2-126). Of course, there’s not a civil circuit court form for an affidavit of service, either.
The rules of civil procedure attempt a complicated balance between the rights of plaintiffs and defendants, but they’re also a maze that too often serves as a barrier to justice. For our civil justice system to function, a plaintiff’s complaint has to explain and support their cause of action, and the defendant needs to be aware of the suit and what it’s about. But it doesn’t have to be as complicated as it is. There should be sample complaints or forms that include all of the elements required by the Maryland Rules for a basic civil complaint. Instructions on how to serve writs of summons should be included when the writs are sent to self-represented parties. These two small changes would help some plaintiffs overcome two huge challenges they face when trying to access justice in our circuit courts.