Evictions law had $0 funding. By the end of the session, A2JC – with the support of the MSBA and other key justice partners – succeeded in securing $25.8M in funding for the law from both the Governor and through the legislature. Funding the Access to Counsel in Evictions law will increase access to justice for many vulnerable Marylanders who would otherwise need to navigate the civil justice system on their own.
Background: Confronting the Access to Justice Crisis
COVID-19 created a health, economic, and civil justice crisis. Even before the pandemic, only a small percentage of Marylanders (about 20%) received the help they needed to navigate the civil justice system, resulting in threats to their housing, safety and economic security—not because they did anything wrong, but because they did not have the legal help they needed. The pandemic made more people than ever engage in some aspect of the civil justice system, whether through their unemployment insurance application or appeal or because they fell behind on their rent and faced an eviction proceeding in court. Indeed, the need for civil legal aid skyrocketed in every area in the civil justice system, including housing, consumer debt, public benefits, domestic violence, life and health planning, immigration, and more. Funding for civil legal aid, which is primarily dependent on interest rates and court filings, saw precipitous declines, and needed to be shored up.
To confront the COVID-19 Access to Justice Crisis, the MSBA-backed Access to Justice Commission (A2JC) provided distinctive leadership in uniting the access to justice community to face the unprecedented crisis. We partnered with the Attorney General’s Office to help helm the COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force, and delivered a final report that had 59 substantive recommendations, 41 of which were transformed into bills during the 2021 legislative session and 19 of which are now law, including an additional $9 million in civil legal aid funding and a statewide access to counsel in evictions law.
The New Access to Counsel in Evictions Law
During the 2021 legislative session, the General Assembly passed HB18, making it one of the first state legislatures in the nation to create a statewide access to counsel in evictions program. At its root, the law acknowledges the detrimental impact of evictions to Marylanders, including how evictions:
- exacerbate the public health crisis posed by COVID-19;
- create significant collateral costs for state and local governments;
- cause trauma and increase instability and insecurity for families, especially children; and
- have a disparate impact on Black and Brown households.
The General Assembly sought to address the deleterious effects of eviction and its many collateral consequences by creating the Access to Counsel in Evictions Program (the Program) and recognized that providing tenants counsel in eviction cases is a “proven means of preventing the disruptive displacement of families and the resulting social, economic, and public health costs of such displacement.”
Funding the Access to Counsel in Evictions Law
The Program, to the detriment of Marylanders, had remained unfunded—until recently. Since the legislature passed HB18 in April 2021, A2JC has spearheaded advocacy in concert with key legislators, the Attorney General, the Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force, the Maryland Legal Services Corporation, and the civil legal aid community, requesting Governor Hogan to provide $11.8 million in start-up funding to Program from the billions of dollars in federal funding coming into the state through the American Rescue Plan and other with the Governor was partially successful! The Hogan administration committed at the start of the legislative session to allocating $5.4 million from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program to fund the Access to Counsel in Evictions Program.
While this is good news, a large shortfall remained. Thus, we strongly advocated during the 2022 legislative session for the General Assembly to take action! We urged for the passage of HB724/SB662 or other funding bills for the General Assembly to allocate the remainder of $6.4 million in funding to jump-start the Program in FY2023 and for future years funding to stabilize the Program, so the law can have the intended effect of preventing evictions.
With COVID-19 continuing and with approximately 111,000 Maryland households behind on their rent and facing eviction, we argued that implementing HB18 should be an urgent priority for Maryland legislators. The households under threat are overwhelmingly people of color (80%) and have suffered both job and income loss during the pandemic.
The Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force, which was mandated by HB18 and led by A2JC Commissioners, studied the funding issue and recommended that the legislature look to all appropriate sources of funding, but particularly emphasized jump-starting the Program through one-time federal funding and then seeking a general allocation in the state budget for the Program.
Through a coordinated approach with justice partners and dogged advocacy, A2JC is proud to have succeeded in securing $28.5M to fund the first and second year of the Access to Counsel in Evictions law. A2JC’s work over the past few years in educating elected officials about the civil justice crisis through multiple high-level task forces helped create the environment necessary for these important strides in funding counsel to be taken.
Key Points in Support of Access to Counsel
Eviction Is a Legal Process Where Counsel Makes a Difference in Case Outcomes
• Eviction is a legal process that is made more efficient and fair when both parties have the same access to legal counsel: 96% of landlords are represented by an attorney or eviction court agent, while only 1% of tenants are represented.
• There are more than 650,000 Rent Court cases per year.
• Some Rent Court cases can be complex, implicating federal, state, and local laws, contract law, case law and regulations.
• Over 60% of tenant-respondents had a defense based on the condition of the unit, but only 8% of those tenants were successful in raising the defense without counsel.
• In New York City, which implemented a right to counsel program in 2013, 86% of represented tenants remained in their homes and eviction filings decreased by 30% just through the provision of counsel.
Federal Government Support for Access to Counsel
• The federal government has made clear that funding to states from federal rescue plans should be used to fund legal representation to prevent evictions. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge echoed this point in a letter to state and local officials across the country, explaining that “tenants are more likely to avoid eviction and remain stably housed when they have access to legal representation. Legal counsel can also aid in the successful completion of [rental assistance] applications.”
Other States’ Funding of Access to Counsel
• Numerous states and localities have responded and allocated millions toward counsel in eviction cases including in Tennessee, Wyoming, Virginia, Maine, and Michigan.