NPR: Legal help for the poor in 'state of crisis'

From National Public Radio:  Nearly 50 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that people accused of a crime deserve the right to a defense lawyer, no matter whether they can afford to pay for one. But there’s no such guarantee when it comes to civil disputes — like evictions and child custody cases — even though they have a huge impact on people’s lives.

For decades, federal and state governments have pitched in to help. But money pressures mean the system for funding legal aid programs for the poor is headed toward a crisis.

A Legal ER

On a recent morning, one block from city hall in downtown Baltimore, a few dozen people crowd into a waiting room. The light is dim and the mood is downcast, except for a toddler in a pink stroller singing her ABCs.

This isn’t a hospital. But it is a kind of emergency room, for people who need help, right away, with all kinds of legal problems.

One of them is Baltimore cab driver Rodney Taylor, who says he’s “here at Legal Aid today to receive some help because I’m trying to get custody of my son.” Another is Jasalle Coates, “here because I’ve been given the runaround about my property.” And then there’s a middle-aged lady in fashionable black glasses who didn’t want to give her name, to protect her brother in a nursing home from possible retaliation.

“I need to see what his rights are,” she says, “because he was not given medication, he was not fed, he was soaking wet, he had black eyes. His head was busted. And I feel that was abuse.”

At Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau, the doors are open every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

“Some days,” says Joe Rohr, a veteran lawyer at Legal Aid, “we actually have to close early because of the volume.”

He has just come back from the courthouse, where he tried to help a woman who’s pregnant and blind keep her gas and electricity service.

“The problem is, we have far more clients coming in than we have available staff to fully represent everyone,” Rohr says.

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