Lawyers launch fresh push to get poor represented in Maryland civil courts

"No justice, no peace" -- Cummings and other top lawyers launch fresh push for more legal aid in Maryland

Some of Maryland's top lawyers launched a fresh drive Monday to have poor people represented by attorneys in civil cases in an effort to spare the vulnerable from what they see as predatory legal practices, such as buying out lead paint settlements for cents on the dollar.

"If you do not have justice, then you'll have the absence of peace," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings told a group of lawyers at a breakfast in downtown Baltimore. "I'm seeing it more and more, and ... at some point, people explode. So we have a duty."

Courts have held that the Constitution guarantees people the right to a lawyer in criminal cases. Activists for the poor say a similar right ought to be recognized in some civil disputes, especially those in which housing or custody of children is at stake.

Any effort to help people who are at risk of losing their housing could have an outsized impact in Baltimore, which has among the highest eviction rates in the country. Legal activists say many people might have kept their homes if they had had proper legal representation.

"There are so many people who are taking advantage of folk who either have rights but don't know they have the rights, should have opportunities but cannot access them, or do not have the type of representation they need to be able to placed on a fair playing field," said Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat.

Among those people was Freddie Gray, Cummings said.

Gray, the 25-year-old West Baltimore man who suffered a fatal injury in police custody last April, grew up in housing with lead paint. He agreed to convert a major lead paint settlement that would pay out over many years into a lump sum that ultimately was worth far less.

Lawmakers in Annapolis now are considering legislation that would impose new regulations on the buyers of settlements.

The lawyers' group, called the Access to Justice Commission, plans to back legislation in the General Assembly to provide lawyers in custody and domestic violence protective-order cases to those who can't afford them.

They also aim to collect data to better understand how poor people fare in the civil courts. The commission existed previously as a project of the state judiciary but had become defunct.

The group has the backing of Cummings, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, former Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Robert M. Bell and several other prominent Maryland lawyers and activists.

There is growing bipartisan support for making changes to the criminal justice system. It's one of the few areas on which President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans have said they might be able to work together this year.

In Maryland, a state panel recently proposed several measures aimed at curbing Maryland's prison population, including cutting drug sentences.

But the problems poor people face when they go to court in civil cases has received less attention.

Reena Shah, the executive director of the commission, said years of police procedurals on television have drummed at least a basic understanding of the criminal justice system into people's minds, but few shows look at foreclosure cases.

"People don't understand until they're hit with it," Shah said.

Any effort to pay for the lawyers with public money is likely to face opposition.

An effort in Maryland to expand access to lawyers at bail hearings in criminal cases led to years of acrimonious battling in the General Assembly and the courts.

The effort had the weight of the state Constitution and an ironclad decision from the Court of Appeals behind it. The state's top judges have previously ruled there is no similar right in civil cases.

Supporters of expanding access to lawyers in civil cases say funding them could save money later — when people lose housing and need government aid, for example, or if the filing of a protective order could have averted a crime.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat leading the push in Annapolis, said he's confident he can make the case despite the potential cost.

"There are other expenses that the state incurs if you don't handle the cases in the civil system," he said.

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