Today, in the House Appropriations Committee, the MSBA supported House Bill 514 – Maryland Legal Services – Abandoned Property, sponsored by Delegate Ben Barnes. Natalie McSherry, MSBA President-elect, and Chair of the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC), joined MLSC Executive Director, Susan Erlichman in presenting the bill.  House Bill 514 would raise the annual appropriation to the MLSC from the State Abandoned Property Fund from $2 million annually to $8 million per year.

Since its creation by the General Assembly in 1982, the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC) has been funded largely by combination of three funding sources: Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA), filing fee surcharges in the District Court and the circuit courts, and an annual disbursement from the State of Maryland Abandoned Property Fund. The annual appropriation from the Abandoned Property Fund is the only non-variable component of funding to the MLSC.

Maryland Legal Services Executive Director, Susan Erlichman began the presentation by reminding the Committee that the MLSC was created by the General Assembly in 1982, and MLSC is currently largest civil legal services provider in the state. MLSC currently provides funding to 36 nonprofit grantees throughout Maryland to ensure that eligible clients in all areas of the State have access to legal assistance, and that for every dollar invested in civil legal services, the state recognizes $6 in costs prevented. Ms. Erlichman further noted that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2 of its 3 sources of funding  – IOLTA revenue, and court filing fee surcharges have been drastically reduced by continuing low interest rates, combined with extended court closures. As a result, the MLSC appropriation from the Abandoned Property Fund is the only reliable component of the MLSC funding stream, yet one that is completely insufficient to meet the upsurge in demand for civil legal services brought about by the pandemic.

Natalie McSherry, MSBA President-elect, and Chair of the MLSC, pointed out that while the importance of the rule of law is widely recognized, having true access to the legal system is what establishes confidence in the rule of law, and that having the aid of counsel provides assurance that the voices of our most vulnerable Marylanders are heard. Further, Ms. McSherry noted, with the assistance of counsel provided by grantees of MLSC,  low-income Marylanders are far more likely to avoid eviction, escape domestic violence, and deal more effectively with other potentially devastating legal obstacles. In supporting the bill on behalf of both MLSC and MSBA, Ms. McSherry pointed out that even when the effects of the pandemic abate, the demand for legal services will not dissipate.

Other organizations testifying in favor of House Bill 514 were the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS), Disability Rights Maryland, and the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. There was no oral testimony in opposition to HB 514 offered at the hearing.