The January Issue
In this month’s A2J Dispatch, we provide an overview of the important work of the Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force, which involved Commissioners in key roles, including Chair of the Task Force and its committees. We also discuss the Commission’s key legislative priorities, including funding for the Access to Counsel Program and an Eviction Database and other important Commission updates, including the upcoming release of its Civil Justice Story Map, version 2.0. We also start a new section where we spotlight the legislative priorities of our civil legal aid community. January is also Human Trafficking Awareness Month and it gives us the opportunity to shed light on how the civil legal aid community helps those facing human trafficking.
A2J Commission News
- Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force Report. Earlier this month the Maryland Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force released its first annual report to the Governor and Maryland General Assembly regarding the statewide Access to Counsel in Evictions Program. In addition to creating the Program, House Bill 18, which was passed during the 2021 legislative session and became law, effective October 1, 2021, also created the Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force. The Task Force was staffed by the Attorney General’s office and composed of a group of key stakeholders tasked with figuring out how best to implement the Program. It issued its final report outlining key principles and recommendations that included policy and statutory changes necessary for effective implementation.
A2J Commissioner Vicki Schultz was the appointed chair of the 15-member Task Force which put forth eight key recommendations ranging from outreach and education to implementation and funding.
The Task Force’s key recommendations are highlighted below:
- Develop an outreach strategy that centralizes access, disperses resources and services, and considers technological and other barriers to getting information.
- Establish a centralized repository for pre-filing notices related to eviction cases and administrative proceedings that protects individual privacy and confidentiality, but also allows such notices to be used to gather data, analyze trends, and facilitate outreach.
- Create a coordinated intake system that simplifies the process for tenants seeking legal assistance in eviction cases.
- Adopt uniform court rules and procedures for rent court dockets to ensure that eligible tenants have the opportunity to meaningfully and consistently exercise their right to access counsel.
- Provide adequate staff, including attorneys and paralegals who are ready and competent to provide services.
- Conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the program to assess the effectiveness of outreach and referrals, the impact of legal services on evictions and disruptive displacements, and the appropriate levels of funding and staffing.
- Create a centralized eviction data hub to collect, display, and analyze eviction-related data from key stakeholders, while protecting individual privacy.
- Provide sufficient funding for the Access to Counsel in Evictions Special Fund to fully implement the program throughout the state as required by the statute.
- “It’s time to fund the access to counsel in eviction law,” says A2JC Executive Director Reena Shah.
In an article that was published in the Daily Record earlier this month Shah noted that, among other things, “A2JC has been active in requesting that Governor Hogan fund the Program with a small portion of the billions in federal dollars coming into the State for COVID relief. Now, we ask the General Assembly to act. . . [and] allocate $12 million in funding for fiscal year 2023 for this law to have its intended effect.” For more on this article visit: https://thedailyrecord.com/2022/01/12/its-time-to-fund-the-access-to-counsel
- A2J Commissioner, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and A2J Commissioner and Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force Chair, Vicki Schultz Give Briefing to Maryland House Judiciary Committee.
In her remarks to the Committee, Schultz highlighted how “numerous studies have shown that tenants who have counsel fare better than those who do not.” As an example, Schultz pointed out that “in New York City, the first jurisdiction in the country to implement a right to counsel in evictions program, the rate of tenants represented by counsel went from 1% from when the program began to more than 71% in the fourth quarter of 2021. . . . [D]uring the last fiscal year 84% of households represented . . . by lawyers provided through the [NYC] program were able to remain in their homes, preserving their tenancies, promoting the preservation of affordable housing and neighborhood stability. Eviction filings in New York City also dropped precipitously since the implementation of the program.”
For a recording of the briefing visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbeX01InIlU
A2JC’s 2022 Legislative Preview
- Access to Counsel in Evictions Funding – A2JC has been advocating with Governor Hogan since the passage of HB 18 to fund access to counsel in evictions. We will also be advocating for funding for the Program during the legislative session. We seek $12 million in funding for FY23. There are expected to be several bills that affect funding for the Access to Counsel Program, including SB223/ HB298, which were introduced by Senate President Ferguson and House Speaker Jones and will raise the filing in evictions cases to bring it in line with the national average, having the effect of lowering the number of eviction filings and raising funds for the Program.
- Eviction Data – Maryland does not have an eviction database; thus, it does not have basic data to guide policy decisions about eviction prevention. The lack of eviction data is a barrier to civil justice for all. A2JC will be partnering with the Community Development Network of Maryland to push for the creation of an eviction database that will give zipcode and county specific information on evictions that occur in Maryland. The bill is still in drafting and will be released shortly.
The A2JC will also support the following bills:
- Access to Counsel in Immigration Proceedings, HB114/ SB129, which will establish the Access to Counsel in Immigration Proceedings Program, to provide access to legal representation for Maryland residents who are subject to removal from the United States; and establishing the Access to Counsel in Immigration Proceedings Special Fund to provide funding to implement access to legal representation in immigration proceedings.
Civil Legal Aid Legislative Spotlight
Maryland Access to Justice Commission is working to increase exposure to the civil legal aid community both within the MSBA and beyond. This is part of a larger A2JC communications project, called Maryland Voices for Justice, which focuses on increasing awareness and social/ traditional media coverage of civil justice issues and aims to shed light on the many areas of advocacy the civil legal aid community is involved in, including through legislative advocacy and initiatives.
Below is a brief snapshot of some of the areas of focus that key organizations in Maryland’s civil legal aid community work on as a part of their legislative priorities and advocacy initiatives.
- Women’s Law Center of Maryland. Every legislative session, the Women’s Law Center of Maryland (WLC) participates in a wide range of legislative advocacy, through coalitions and alliances, in partnership with sister-organizations and legislators, and by taking the lead on issues that have a disproportionate impact on women in Maryland. The WLC’s legislative portfolio is focused on passing laws that ensure the physical safety, economic security, and bodily autonomy of women in Maryland. Accordingly, WLC bills are generally broken down into six categories: Economic Security and Employment Law; Family Law; Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault; Reproductive Rights; Civil Rights and Access to Justice; and Other. Notably, WLC had a number of wins in 2021, including an expansion of the statute of limitations for victims of employment discrimination and a prohibition on sexual activity by police officers with victims and witnesses.
Although the push for Paid Family Leave and the Prohibition on Spousal Defense of Rape failed in the 2021 Legislative session, along with a bill that would have removed barriers for victims of sexual harassment in the workplace, each of those bills are returning during the 2022 General Assembly and will be priorities for the WLC.
** To have your organization’s legislative advocacy initiatives highlighted in the A2J Dispatch please email email@example.com.
In an effort to increase awareness of the powerful, essential role civil legal services play in our community, the A2J Dispatch features an A2J Stories segment, highlighting the stories and work of one of Maryland’s civil legal services organizations. With each story we aim to dig deeper into the issues faced by Marylanders and how civil legal aid makes a positive difference.
This month’s stories come from the Maryland Legal Services Corporation’s (MLSC) Annual Report, which presents impactful stories from its civil legal aid grantees. MLSC’s mission is to ensure low-income Marylanders have access to stable, efficient and effective civil legal assistance through the distribution of funds to nonprofit legal service organizations. Here are two examples of how civil legal aid organizations helped Marylanders over the past year.
- Ms. is a 56-year-old Montgomery County resident who relies on Social Security Disability income. Profound medical, personal, and family issues led to years of intermittent non-filing of taxes, and Ms. T owed the state of Maryland over $25,000 and the IRS close to $8,000. Unable to sustain her payment plan, Ms. T reached out for help, and a Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service volunteer stepped up to help her by submitting an offer-in-compromise to both the state and the IRS. Maryland accepted her offer of $1,000 and the IRS accepted her offer of $500. Thanks to the volunteer lawyer, Ms. T’s total debt of $33,500 was settled for only $1,500! She can now breathe much easier.
- Kevin, a St. Mary’s County resident in his 60s, was diagnosed with late-stage cancer and wanted to get his affairs in order. He was referred to the University of Maryland Carey School of Law Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic for help with an advance directive, financial power of attorney, and will. Because of COVID concerns and distance, clinic students met with Kevin by phone and Zoom, and helped him execute the documents remotely, taking advantage of Governor Hogan’s COVID-related remote witnessing emergency orders. When Kevin died several months later, he had documents in place to ensure his wishes were followed. The clinic also helped Kevin’s widow to obtain monthly Social Security survivors benefits and Medicare coverage.
For additional information on MLSC and its important work in Maryland’s civil legal aid community visit: https://www.mlsc.org/wp-content/uploads/MLSC-FY21-Annual-Report.pdf
** To have your organization’s story highlighted in the Stories segment of the A2J Dispatch please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Local A2J News
- Anti-Human Trafficking Efforts. In recognition of Human Trafficking Awareness month, the Eastern Shore Human Trafficking Task Force held a Walk For Freedom to take a stand against Human Trafficking and raise awareness about the issue. Also, DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs awards $600,000 in federal grant funding to University of Baltimore School of Law and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS), in furtherance of he fight against human trafficking in Maryland. MVLS will use the funds over the course of three years to extend the reach of their Human Trafficking Prevention Project, as well as to increase the number of staff who deliver free legal services to human trafficking survivors.
- Funding Access to Counsel. Maryland lawmakers passed an initiative in 2021 to give tenants access to counsel in eviction cases — but a separate measure that would’ve raised court filing fees and summary ejectment surcharges to pay for the access to counsel program failed to pass before last year’s legislative session ended. Now, legislators say they’ll again push for housing reform during the 2022 legislative session, including tackling funding and excessive eviction filings.
- Maryland Consumer Debt and Protection. Earlier this month the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Plaintiffs, in a class action case against Carrington Mortgage Services, LLC, could proceed with two claims that were previously dismissed in the lower court. Plaintiff’s claims alleged that Carrington violated the Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act (MCDCA) and the Maryland Consumer Protection Act (MCPA) by charging a $5 convenience fee to borrowers who paid monthly mortgage bills online or by phone. The Court found that because the mortgage company is a collector who charged an amount that was not expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law, it had violated the MCDCA.
- Evictions. With the current surge of Covid-19 cases impacting the nation, advocates for tenants have called for evictions to be suspended. In Baltimore, for example, advocates have called on Mayor Brandon Scott, Sheriff John Anderson and Administrative Judge Hallee Weinstein to suspend evictions. “You cannot quarantine and shelter at home if you have no home,” says Public Justice Center attorney Matt Hill.
- Assistance for Tenants. The Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC) recently received $338,000 in emergency American Rescue Plan Act funding from the Baltimore County Department of Housing and Community Development to expand its Tenant Volunteer Lawyer of the Day Program (TVLD), that will allow it to engage in community outreach and public education, provide extended representation and operate a tenant hotline to provide free legal representation and advice to tenants in Baltimore County.
- Education and Students’ Rights. Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) has committed to conducting a review of existing regulations, policies, and procedures to ensure that all students, including students with disabilities and students of color, are not subjected to inappropriate or illegal use of restraint and seclusion. MSDE’s commitment to conduct a review comes after the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced a settlement agreement with Frederick County Public Schools to address the inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion practices against students with disabilities under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the early part of December 2021.
- Unemployment Benefits. Plaintiffs, in a class-action lawsuit against Maryland’s Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson, are suing again over problems they faced trying to receive unemployment benefits during the pandemic. The case includes complaints from unemployed workers whose unemployment benefits were either delayed or discontinued without “an appealable determination,” other plaintiffs were told they had received overpayments, but weren’t given any explanation about the alleged overpayments or information on how they could appeal the decisions.
National A2J News
- States’ Right to Counsel in Eviction Efforts . Cities and states across the nation are enacting laws to protect tenants facing eviction. According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, by October 2021 there was a 24% increase in eviction filings over those registered in August 2021 and in some places the eviction rate is already higher than before the onset of Covid-19. To ease pressure on renters, 21 states and the District of Columbia passed eviction-related legislation in 2021 . . . The 195 proposed eviction laws nationwide this year is 65% more than legislators introduced in 2019.
- Civil Justice System Rankings. The World Justice Project ranks the United States 126th out of 139 countries on “accessibility and affordability of civil justice.” The rankings factor in a number of measures including things like “whether people …can access and afford legal advice and representation…” Notably, the U.S. rank dropped over 40 spots from 2015 to 2021.
- Representation of Children and Youth. Legal representation is crucial to helping children and youth navigate these complex processes because journeying through the civil justice and child welfare system can be complicated and deeply traumatic for children. Accordingly, the National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) has published Revised Recommendations for Legal Representation of Children and Youth in Neglect and Abuse Cases. The Recommendations call on attorneys and legal service providers to anchor legal representation around advancing the legal rights of and interests of children and youth for purposes of ensuring their voices are heard and reach better outcomes.
- Student Loans. Earlier this month a group of attorneys general from 39 states settled lawsuits and investigations against Navient Corporation (Navient), one of the nation’s largest student loan companies. The settlement, which entitles borrowers to $1.7 billion in cancellation on dangerous, high-cost private student loans, came amidst allegations of predatory lending and illegal student loan servicing that harmed borrowers nationwide.