Many access to justice efforts rightfully focus on providing free civil legal services to the most vulnerable among us, who are often described as persons and families whose household income falls below the Federal Poverty Line. Ten percent of Maryland households fall in this category, but an additional 28% are the working poor and fall into what the United Way calls the “ALICE threshold.” ALICE stands for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed. ALICE households do not make enough money to survive and meet their family’s basic needs (e.g. food, shelter and childcare) – let alone hire legal help – despite being hard-working and employed.
Modest means Marylanders or households fall into a unique access to justice predicament: they make too much money to qualify for free civil legal aid, yet they do not make enough to be able to pay market rate for a lawyer. The result is a modest-means access to justice gap, wherein this cohort does not have many viable options to receive any civil legal help. Not receiving timely civil legal help can have dire consequences and can result in further financial hardship. Thus, out of the box thinking and tailored access to justice solutions are required to ensure that all Marylanders can have a fair shake at civil justice, regardless of their income. The Affordable Law Task Force was tasked with confronting this problem and recommending solutions.
A partnership between the Maryland State Bar Association and the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, the Affordable Law Task Force is the first statewide coordinated initiative to confront the issue of providing legal services to modest means Marylanders. The Task Force undertook its work by conducting an audit of existing services in Maryland; surveying Maryland lawyers to learn of the efforts of the private bar; and researching and conducting in-depth interviews with representatives of organizations from across the United States who are serving modest means clients.
The Task Force found that there were only three non-profit legal services organizations providing services to modest means Marylanders and a handful of tools, but that the Maryland judiciary had invested substantially in Court Help Centers that provided brief advice in civil matters, without income limitations.
Additionally, and with some surprise, we also learned through the attorney survey that there were solo and small firm attorneys in the private bar who were providing or wanting to provide services to modest means Marylanders. They were doing so by reducing their hourly rates, charging flat fees or allowing for installment or payment plans; however, few were using legal technology, using paralegals or other allied paraprofessionals. Attorneys who were already providing services and those who wanted to, sought help through templates/ checklists and sample motions; pre-screening of cases; and CLEs for common modest means cases and training in limited scope representation. We also found that attorneys were taking these cases because of a desire to use their law degree to help people and they made it financially sustainable by accepting cases that were less complex; where they already had expertise; and limiting the percent of reduced cost cases they provided, indicating that while attorneys may be offering these services sometimes, most attorneys are not building their whole law firm around serving clients of modest means, because modest means clients may be harder to reach or not pay and it is difficult to turn a profit.
The Task Force also learned from other states and experts around the country understanding that Maryland already had many of the building blocks in place for legal services to modest means to thrive, including organizations with modest means panels; rules allowing for limited scope representation and some fee-shifting statutes; availability of employer-based legal insurance; and very modest uptake of legal technology and allied legal professionals. It did not have, however, any centralized hub for information or resources for attorneys offering these services or for clients seeking them. Further, Maryland was far behind on having discussions about regulatory reforms, let alone adopting them. States that were early adopters of regulatory reforms were at the forefront of innovation by certifying paralegals to provide legal services in certain areas; allowing non-lawyer ownership of law firms; and experimenting with a mix of legal technology, allied legal professionals and attorneys to build a multi-tiered legal system to meet the demand for legal services.
As the Task Force undertook the first full scale statewide exploration of how to serve Marylanders of modest means, the Task Force understood the need for more in-depth study to flesh out some of the interventions. It centered identifying interventions that were financially viable and sustainable; scalable and had an ability to have mass impact. There was a mixed desire among the Task Force to take a measured approach, but also a realization that in many ways Maryland is well behind many other states in trying to address this yawning gap in legal services for modest means individuals and needed to act with urgency.
After 18 months of study and analysis, the Task Force made these recommendations for the Maryland State Bar Association and the Access to Justice Commission:
- Serve as a thought-leader and the coordinating entity for providing legal services to modest means clients by convening and working in partnership with all relevant justice stakeholders, the judiciary and bar associations.
- Expand existing efforts to provide legal services to modest means clients.
- Conduct additional research that can help inform future progress and innovations to serve modest means clients.
- Normalize discourse related to regulatory reform of the legal profession.
- Partner with modest means nonprofits to establish a pilot project in either family law or estate planning.
- Form a group that will work to implement recommendations of this Task Force and to conduct additional research that can help inform future progress and innovations to serve modest means Marylanders.
To read the full report please click here–> Affordable Law Task Force Report and Recommendations