Seeing people go to court without a lawyer for some of life’s messiest, most consequential matters, such as whether they have rights to see their children, is what drives Ellicott City attorney Walter Ty to take on their cases — for free.
When Ty heard about Therman Ames' efforts to win custody of his son, Ty agreed to represent him. Ames had been a merchant seaman and spent months at a time away from home. When he quit that job and returned to Baltimore, Ames said he felt his son, who was living with his mother, needed a father figure.
Ames said he was surviving on savings and unemployment, so he decided to try to navigate the court process without a lawyer. But as soon as he was standing before a judge, it was clear he was in over his head. He didn’t understand the court jargon. He felt overwhelmed. And the stakes were too high for a mistake.
“I stepped out on faith and went to the city of Baltimore and put in the paperwork and I did it on my own,” Ames said. “I felt alone and I felt like, ‘Whoa. What’s going on?’”
Then he reached out to Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service for free help and was matched with Ty.
Ty helped Ames get custody. That was about five years ago. Ames' son is now 18 and on a full football scholarship to Alderson Broaddus University in West Virginia, where he is studying to become a trauma nurse.
“It was like Walter [Ty] was a cousin fighting for his family,” Ames, 49, said. “Every time he stepped in the court, he reassured us.”
Ty is one of about 700 lawyers who volunteer their time with the Maryland Volunteers Lawyers Service to represent some 5,000 Marylanders each year, said Susan Francis, the nonprofit’s director. In the last year, their volunteer work was collectively valued at $6 million.
The lawyers provide pro bono legal help with foreclosures, bankruptcy and expungements. They help protect vulnerable adults with guardianships, sort out deed and title entanglements, and work with sex trafficking survivors to address prostitution convictions.
With 10 open cases right now, Ty, 49,was named the Maryland Volunteers Lawyers Service’s “Volunteer of the Year.” He has taken on about 90 cases over the last decade and provided more than 1,000 hours of legal representation at no cost to the clients.
Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera said volunteer lawyers provide “life altering, and sometimes lifesaving, legal counsel” and access to equal justice.
“The current pandemic has laid bare the inequities festering within our nation, including economic, social and legal inequities, which undermine the promise of our democracy,” Barbera said in a statement.
The volunteers “believe in a justice system that is just — and having an attorney makes an incredible difference," Francis said.
The need is great, she said. The organization typically takes between about 800 and 1,000 calls a month from people who need civil legal help, although demand has been down some during the coronavirus pandemic. The groups expects a spike to come with the looming eviction crisis.
“If we can’t help them, they will have to navigate the court system on their own,” Francis said. “It clearly impacts the outcome, if you have an attorney.”
Ty said he is compelled to volunteer because of what can be lost or gained for a person depending on whether they can afford a lawyer.
An immigrant from the Philippines, Ty came to Maryland as a a teenager with his mother and sister. He is the sole proprietor at his law firm.
He graduated from the University of Baltimore School of Law after graduating high school in Rockville and earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Ty said he was surprised to be named “Volunteer of the Year," because he did not realize how many pro bono hours he was working.
“I always try to keep one or two every month,” Ty said of the cases.
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This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor, Sundra Hominik at email@example.com. Please include “Newsmaker” in the subject line.