The Baltimore Banner Commentary: Funding civil legal aid vital to protect many Maryland families
When a family’s money is tight and it is living close to the edge, pushing that family over the brink doesn’t take much. One seemingly simple legal problem can set off cascading events leading to dire consequences, including homelessness.
That happened to a family of six on the Eastern Shore that nearly lost its home when hard times hit, putting the members of that family in danger of eviction. A free Maryland Legal Aid lawyer was able to raise defenses in the court case and keep the family in its home. In Prince George’s County, a mother sought the court’s protection from an abusive father only to have him turn around and sue her for custody of the children he had abused. With the help of a Maryland Legal Aid lawyer, she was able to retain custody of her children and keep them safe from further abuse.
The legal system is complex and confusing. Without a lawyer, the chances of having a good outcome in court are slim, while negative consequences can be devastating. But affording a lawyer is out of reach for almost 40% of Marylanders, especially those living in poverty and the working poor living just above it.
Maryland Legal Aid is Maryland’s largest provider of free, direct legal services to vulnerable low-income people and families who have nowhere else to turn in times of crisis. It is one of 46 grantees supported by the Maryland Legal Services Corp., which distributes funding to nonprofit legal services organizations to ensure low-income Marylanders have access to stable, efficient, and effective civil legal representation. Current funding levels are not, however, adequate to support this critical work. Without additional support, too many Marylanders will find themselves navigating the legal system alone.
Gov. Wes Moore and the Maryland General Assembly are weighing a request to add crucial funding to the fiscal year 2025 budget to fund this life-saving work.
Providing funding for civil legal aid lawyers is not only the right thing to do. It is a fundamental way of ensuring we keep Maryland families housed, economically secure, and safe. Civil legal aid lawyers help Marylanders prevent evictions, defend against foreclosures, and ensure families stay together and stay safe from violence. They also help Maryland families access critical income support such as unemployment benefits, food stamps, and health care. The lawyers defend against predatory loans and illegal To collect a debt or obtain payment; To recover goods sold on credit or in installments when the buyer fails to pay for them. More practices and remove barriers to employment by expunging criminal records. Resolving fundamental legal problems helps families move away from crisis to stability and puts them on a path to thrive.
Civil legal aid funding is also critical to ensure fairness in our legal system and address long-standing social and racial inequity. Residents living in disinvested communities — primarily communities of color — disproportionately suffer the harms of predatory and discriminatory practices that lead to legal jeopardy with tragic consequences. For example, studies show that the number of evictions of Black women is 296% more than that of white men. Ensuring that justice continues to be available to all, not just to those who can afford it, is essential to legitimize our legal system and build confidence in our democratic institutions.
Finally, investing in civil legal aid has a proven return. Research shows that every $1 spent on civil legal aid returns $6 of benefits. Last year, civil legal aid providers assisted more than 82,000 Marylanders, benefiting more than 160,000 individuals. This is estimated to generate $190 million per year in economic activity, cost savings, and increased productivity according to the most recent study on the impact of civil legal aid by the Administrative Office of the Courts. The return on investment is even greater in some areas, such as evictions, where a $5.7 million investment in attorneys on the front end resulted in $35.7 million in cost savings to the government on the back end.
As Maryland lawmakers convene for the 2024 legislative session, they will consider increased funding for civil legal aid. They will determine whether our state continues to stand with progressive states across the country by investing in equal justice, fairness, and equity for all Marylanders, especially those who struggle economically and are vulnerable, including seniors, children, and victims of domestic violence.
Legal aid attorneys are talented and dedicated, often forgoing financial stability and opportunities because they believe in equal justice. But on average, they are our state’s lowest-paid public interest attorneys, and many cannot afford to stay in this important work. Their employers have been unable to keep pace with the state salaries, such as those at the Office of the Public Defender or the Office of the Attorney General. Pay equity with our peers in the public sector is necessary to ensure that vital legal help is there when Marylanders need it, so that no Marylander is left behind.
Vicki Schultz is executive director of Maryland Legal Aid. Michelle Siri is executive director of Maryland Legal Services Corp. Reena Shah is executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission.
This story was published by The Baltimore Banner on January 12, 2024.