Imagine “playing in a high-stakes poker game where you don’t know the rules and you don’t even speak the language,” said Attorney General Frosh, explaining the difficulties faced by four out of five Marylanders who cannot afford an attorney to help them with complex matters ranging from domestic violence to benefit disputes and consumer law issues.
In a virtual press conference held July 1, Maryland’s judicial and legal leadership called on attorneys of every specialization throughout the state to mobilize against this civil justice crisis, which has been exacerbated by COVID-19. If each of the 40,000 attorneys in the state took just one pro bono case or provided other behind-the-scenes pro bono help over the next year, tens of thousands of vulnerable Marylanders would be impacted in powerfully positive ways.
Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera encouraged legal professionals to “dive right in,” even if that means stepping out of their traditional practice areas. Attorneys will be provided with any necessary training and support by the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, which will serve as the main contact for volunteer lawyers.
Other advocates noted the benefits of education and experience gained through pro bono service.
The Pro Bono Call to Action is one of several recommendations made by the Attorney General’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force, a six-month project in which the Access to Justice Commission was proud to partner. The Task Force released its final report in January, addressing a multitude of civil justice challenges endangering the health, safety, and well-being of Marylanders during the pandemic.
The economic fallout of COVID-19 has expanded the percentage of the population that is struggling to afford basic bills, let alone legal fees. “We know there are thousands of Marylanders who have been unable to access public benefits like unemployment insurance,” Frosh said, “and we know that many Marylanders, due to the loss of a job and income, have been unable to pay their bills, to pay the rent.”
Natalie McSherry, President of the Maryland State Bar Association, noted that nearly 40 percent of Maryland lawyers already provide pro bono services every year, totalling approximately one million hours in legal assistance to Marylanders who could not otherwise access an attorney. However, even this generosity has never been enough to meet the demand, now heavier than ever due to the pandemic.
Asking people to represent themselves in civil justice matters is like asking a sick person to diagnose themselves through an internet site like WebMD, said Reena Shah, Executive Director of Maryland’s Access to Justice Commission. Not only must the layperson determine the nature of their ailment – a process which may involve complex tests and scans – but they must also construct an appropriate course of treatment and implement it themselves – possibly including conducting surgery on their own bodies.
As President McSherry stressed, “We can be the difference in ensuring this pandemic recovery does not disproportionately harm the most vulnerable among us.”
Read More: Press Coverage of Pro Bono Call to Action