Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh recently held a press conference to celebrate the passage of a number of legislative reforms implementing the recommendations of the Access to Justice COVID-19 Task Force. The Task Force, which launched last June, had an urgent and ambitious charge to address the challenges low-income individuals, people of color, and those with disabilities face in obtaining access to Maryland civil justice system. The Task Force rose to the challenge of addressing problems that were exacerbated by the pandemic, developing several dozen recommendations to protect against unnecessary evictions and foreclosures, expand access to public benefits and health insurance, ensure safe workplaces, and effectively fund civil legal service providers. The recommendations are included in a report entitled Confronting the COVID-19 Access to Justice Crisis, which is available at www.marylandattorneygeneral.gov.
Although the Task Force’s work formally concluded when the report was issued, many people continued to advance its objectives by backing legislation to implement its recommendations. Attorney General Frosh gave special recognition to the community co-chairs and the members that oversaw those efforts, meeting weekly to coordinate testimony and discuss strategy under the leadership of Vice-Chair Reena Shah and with the support of the Maryland State Bar Association and its access to Justice Commission, chaired by Ward B. Coe, Partner at Gallagher, Evelius, & Jones, LLP. Thanks to the work of J. Sandy Bartlett, more than a dozen bills implementing the Task Force’s recommendations passed. While there are far too many legislators to recognize everyone individually, Attorney General Frosh highlighted a few key achievements.
COVID-19 put an immeasurable burden on Legal Aid at the same time that funding for Legal Services plummeted. As a result, the key recommendation of the task force was to provide more sustainable funding for the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC). Thanks to Maryland State Senator Guy Guzzone and Delegate Maggie McIntosh, the MLSC will now receive $6,000,000 in dollars in additional funding each year from the state’s abandoned property fund.
Attorney General Frosh noted that the Task Force was also able to achieve some improvement in health outcomes. The pandemic revealed race-based disparities in health care, and thanks in large part to the efforts of Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk, the general assembly passed several bills to improve health outcomes and reduce health inequities in Maryland, including one bill that will create a statewide oversight committee dedicated to improving outcomes and addressing the remaining problems.
Housing issues were another focus of the Task Force. The Attorney General noted that the pandemic exposed a crisis in affordable housing for low-income tenants, and while there was a measure of legislative success, more work needs to be done to provide assistance and resources to tenants. In a hard-fought battle, Senator Shelly L. Hettleman and Delegate Wanika Fisher ushered in legislation to expand tenants’ access to legal counsel in eviction cases. That legislation includes a requirement that landlords provide 10-day written notice before filing an eviction complaint, a significant development that is the product of a proposal put forward by Delegate Melissa Wells.
The state’s unemployment benefits system was unprepared for the rapid escalation of claims and the change in its benefit structure, and it left newly unemployed Marylanders at an increased risk of cold and hunger. Legislation introduced by Delegate Lorig Charkoudian will require critical enhancements to the claims process, including establishing claims tracking capabilities and standards for timely processing. Benefits and workplace protections for essential workers were put into place as well, thanks to the work of Delegate Dereck Davis.
The Task Force also received tremendous support from its federal partners and the Congressional Advisory Committee which helped direct nearly $4 billion in pandemic relief to the state, including hundreds of millions of dollars in rental assistance for families struggling to keep their homes.
Even as the Task Force celebrated its recent successes, though, it acknowledged that there is work that remains to be done, particularly in the areas of housing and consumer protection. Specifically, legislation must be passed increasing the filing fee for eviction cases, which is among the lowest in the nation, and eliminating body attachments for consumers who own small debts.
Tim Howell, a resident of Crownsville, Maryland, gave a firsthand account of how people were impacted by the pandemic and in particular, the challenges of the state unemployment benefits system. He stated he would not have known what to do if he had not received the assistance of Maryland Legal Aid. He spent much of his life working in news and media to help people understand how policy affects the lives of Americans, but he was at a loss of what to do when his job went away during the pandemic. Like many others, he began receiving benefits, but then they stopped without any notice or explanation. He tried to contact the Department of Labor’s Division of Unemployment Insurance but could not get a response. After hundreds of phone calls and three months without benefits, he called Maryland Legal Aid, which stood up for him and acted as his voice, speaking to the leadership in the state office and getting his benefits reinstated. Attorney General Frosh noted that Mr. Howell’s testimony mirrored that of many others who called his office on a daily basis.
Judge Andre Davis, Vice-Chair of the Task Force, then discussed other bills that were passed during the session. He began with House Bill 1002, which addressed some of the issues Attorney General Frosh and Mr. Howell noted regarding breakdowns in the process of obtaining unemployment benefits in Maryland. It was enacted as emergency legislation, which means that it went into effect immediately, and it has already begun to resolve some of the difficulties experienced by those seeking benefits due to the Department of Labor being overwhelmed by lack of personnel and insufficient technology.
Obtaining the limited right to counsel to those involved in eviction cases was another significant victory from the recent session. MLSC was placed at the center of ensuring that funding and the provision of counsel to persons involved in eviction cases becomes a reality. Judge Davis echoed Attorney General Frosh’s sentiment that it was crucial that the Task Force’s recommendation regarding the 10-day notice requirement was passed into law so that tenants now have a chance to avoid the indignities of having to go into court. He expressed disappointment that bills that aimed to increase the filing fees that are imposed on landlords, increase the funds available to enhance fairness in the eviction cases, and limit the extraordinary number of eviction cases that are filed in Maryland were not passed, however, and noted Maryland needs to be aligned with neighboring states in terms of filing fees in such cases.
Similarly, he was disheartened by the failure of the bill designed to eliminate body attachments, which are, in effect, arrest warrants. He believes that in the future, advocates will ask the legislature to carve out a singular exception that would bar the use of body attachments in small claims cases, as people should not be arrested for the failure to appear in court, and debt collectors have vast resources at their disposal to pursue the funds they are owed. Judge Davis stated they were extremely grateful for the enormous expansion of access to healthcare as well as the increase in data collection, which are great strides towards healthcare equity. He was also very pleased with the Legislature’s continuation of the remote witnessing and remote notarization process, which the governor had put in place early in the pandemic, and the transfer of real property tax credits in the context of inheritance, both of which are impactful changes to Maryland law.
Task Force Vice-Chair Reena Shah then discussed the continuing initiatives that stemmed from the Task Force’s work. While most of the recommendations were directed towards the Legislature, many were directed elsewhere, and work will continue in the Access to Justice Commission to make those recommendations realities. She noted the importance of legal representation and fairness in the justice system and ensuring that people understand their rights so that the most vulnerable are not disproportionately impacted by the civil justice crisis. As such, the Maryland Access to Justice Commission will continue to work to ensure that Marylanders have meaningful access to the civil justice system, which includes increasing access to legal assistance.
While the funding for MLSC was increased via legislation, there is currently no funding mechanism, so the Commission will be pursuing funding sources. There is also an effort with the private bar to increase pro bono work. They are working to enhance access to critical information and civil justice data as well. To that end, the Access to Justice Consumer Protection Committee developed a microsite at www.debtcollectionmaryland.org, which has resources related to consumer debt and lays out in plain language information related to consumer debt issues.
The Access to Justice Commission is poised to release a life and health planning handbook that was created by the Life and Health Planning Committee, to be shared broadly in both digital and printed versions in places where legal and health issues intersect. Additionall, the Commission is working on a partnership with 2-1-1 Maryland to help bolster its capacity and integrate the civil legal aspect into their work so that people can call them to find out where to get help.
Finally, Ms. Shah highlighted the Civil Justice for All Story Map, a new tool that the Maryland Access to Justice Commission created, which is both a communications and data tool that allows people to obtain information regarding the civil justice system. It also has interactive maps that allow people to evaluate data at county and statewide levels.