The Pledge of Allegiance closes with “…and justice for all,” but that phrase doesn’t apply to all Marylanders, according to Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum, an Executive Board Member of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, MSBA Managing Partners Group Co-Chair, and the Managing Partner of Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore City.
In her address to assembled MSBA Members on MSBA Day, Jan. 24, 2023, she praised Maryland lawyers as “the best legal services providers in the country. But as competent as these professionals are, and as hard as they work, they are able to represent the poor of our state in only about 20% of their legal needs.” The result is that poor Marylanders “go unrepresented in complex areas of the law that the untrained have little chance of mastering on their own.”
Which is where the Maryland Access to Justice Commission comes in.
One of the Commission’s jobs is to advocate for the right to counsel in civil cases where basic human rights are involved, such as housing stability. Krevor-Wesibaum said, “we have partially achieved that with the Access to Counsel in Evictions Law, but we need to fully fund it. As predicted, evictions are increasing. And as Governor Wes Moore said, housing insecurity is the main driver of poverty.”
Evictions have a detrimental societal impact beyond contributing to housing insecurity. They 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 Commission works closely with the Maryland State Bar Association to achieve its goals. For example, in 2022 the two organizations secured $25.8M in funding the Access to Counsel in Evictions Law. The Commission and the MSBA have been proud partners since 2018.
Although the General Assembly has recognized that equity requires access to counsel for tenants in eviction proceedings, that access is illusory without continual and predictable funding. Maryland’s eviction rate is expected to reach crisis levels, so partial funding or funding for one-year of legal services contracts is insufficient. Rather, “we need annual budgetary allocations so that access to counsel in evictions is an established right for years to come,” Krevor-Weisbaum said.
For that reason, securing continuous state funding for the Access to Counsel in Evictions Law is a joint priority for both the Commission and the MSBA this legislative session.
A second joint priority this session is increasing civil legal aid funding. The perennial gap between private and government practitioners’ compensation and that of legal service practitioners is now too great. “It’s a serious impediment to legal services providers being able to recruit lawyers who are burdened with student debt.”
Krevor-Weisbaum praised legal aid lawyers as hardworking heroes who master complex areas of law while representing traumatized people, all while “battling uphill against racial and economic inequalities.” She went on to state that “they are dedicated to helping the poor, and they walk with their clients against the winds of injustice. … As Governor Moore said last week, it is time for our policies to be as bold as our aspirations. Our time is now to build a state that leaves no one behind. That means justice for all.”
Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum at MSBA Day before giving her address