Barbara McDowell is banking on the free legal advice she received at one of Maryland Legal Aid's recent pro bono days to help resolve a seven-year child support dispute with the father of her grandson.
The Pikesville woman, who said she has raised her grandson since her 32-year-old daughter died of breast cancer, said finding money on her fixed income to pay for a lawyer has never made the top of her priority list. She was one of more than 100 people who turned out Oct. 20 for the free help in Randallstown, one of several such events held across the state each year.
Maryland Legal Aid is offering another pro bono day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at its headquarters at 500 E. Lexington St. in Baltimore. The event is open to all, regardless of income, said Yoanna X. Moisides, Legal Aid's assistant director of advocacy for training and pro bono.
"I've been fighting this for a long time," McDowell said. "I thought I'd never get to talk to a lawyer. I thought, 'This is the way to go — this is what I need.' "
On Saturday, Moisides said, 50 volunteers, including 39 attorneys, will assist individuals. The lawyers will offer expertise in a variety of issues, such as filing for divorce or bankruptcy and dealing with consumer debt, medical litigation and housing matters, Moisides said.
"We're looking forward to having a tremendous response from people seeking help," she said. "The demand for civil legal services is increasing and overwhelming our offices."
She said the organization is trying to stretch its resources while dealing with funding reductions, so it worked with area bar associations to gather private attorneys to offer assistance.
Low-income people charged with criminal offenses that carry possible jail time or fines larger than $500 have access to lawyers through the state Office of the Public Defender. But Marylanders generally have no guarantee of representation in civil cases. Neglected and abused children are an exception.
Legal Aid paired with the Baltimore County Bar Association and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service to host the recent pro bono day in Randallstown. Moisides said she wants to find more partners in the legal community to increase the number of events. So far, pro bono days are offered twice a year in Baltimore and Baltimore County; occasionally, the events have been held elsewhere.
Legal Aid runs 13 offices that provide free legal help to low-income individuals. The efforts are paid for by federal, state and local tax dollars, as well as donations from United Way and other sources.
"It's just incredible to see the need that exists," Moisides said.
In many cases, the lawyers who participate in pro bono days do not provide full representation for the individuals who attend, she said. The one-on-one sessions are consultations that can provide direction and information on additional resources.
Moisides said the sessions also are helpful because lawyers can tell people whether their problems have a legal remedy.