Message From Our Executive Director
The challenges Maryland Legal Aid faces are daunting. The dismal economy is increasing the ranks of those who need Legal Aid services, just as revenues are becoming less reliable.
In Maryland. the situation is made less dire because partners have come together to celebrate and promote equal justice and the rule of law. These partners include Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and other leaders of the Maryland judiciary, Governor Martin O’Malley and other government officials, the Maryland State Bar Association, private lawyers, and funding sources such as the Maryland Legal Services Corporation, private foundations, and the federal Legal Services Corporation.
These individuals and groups have strengthened and enhanced their commitment in concrete ways to ensure that people in need maintain their access to assistance (see the latest issue of the Justice Journal for a profile of Legal Aid’s Farmworker Program for an excellent example) and the level of help remains constant.
Unfortunately, for our colleagues in other states, the reality is different. A recent LSC survey showed that local legal aid programs across the U.S. expect to reduce staffing by nearly 750 employees in 2012—including 350 attorneys—because of funding cuts. This represents a reduction of eight percent of full-time-equivalent positions from the end of 2011.
Nationwide, LSC grantees reported significant reductions in funding, staffing, and operations. Eighty-seven percent of the respondents said that their total 2012 LSC and non-LSC funding would decrease significantly from 2011. Eighty-two percent of the programs with reserves expected to use those funds in 2012 to continue operations.
So far, Maryland Legal Aid has not reduced staff, implemented unpaid furloughs, or closed any offices. But that could change if the next General Assembly doesn’t extend or make permanent the increases in court filing-fee surcharges that expire in 2013. Enacted nearly two years ago, the surcharge increases support civil legal programs that help low-income Marylanders across the state.
We’re optimistic that Legal Aid will not only avoid the loss of capacity, but will actually increase capacity to serve more clients as we move forward. This vision for the future puts Maryland at the forefront nationwide of addressing human needs. Legal Aid views these needs, including affordable housing, access to health care, and jobs that pay a living wage, as human rights.
This concept of equating basic needs to human rights echoes the vision of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In consecutive States of the Union addresses in 1941 and 1944, Roosevelt presented to the U.S. Congress his aspiration that everyone in the world should enjoy at least four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
The addresses became known as Roosevelt’s First and Second Bill of Rights speeches. These speeches, in turn, were the inspiration behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the United Nations adopted in 1948. They also serve as inspiration for Maryland Legal Aid’s recent adoption of a human rights framework for all of our work on behalf of clients.
Legal Aid’s diverse partners deserve tremendous kudos for helping to keep access to justice in the state of Maryland. These partners include our courageous clients, the committed board of directors, the concerned members of the Equal Justice Council (Legal Aid’s private fundraising arm), the dedicated staff, and generous funders and donors.
And we are fortunate that Chief Judge Bell created the Access to Justice Commission, which is chaired by retired Court of Appeals Judge Irma Raker and vice chair Ben Clyburn, chief judge of the Maryland District Court.
One of the results of their efforts is the strengthening of the District Court Self-Help Center in Glen Burnie, a service operated by Legal Aid. This award-winning project was recently able to double its capacity, resulting in thousands of Marylanders getting increased access to justice.
Let us continue to strengthen Maryland’s stellar track record of reporting, defending and promoting human rights.
Wilhelm H. Joseph, Jr., Executive Director