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Carroll County residents use 'pro bono' services for family law, but more help is out there

Carroll County residents use 'pro bono' services for family law, but more help is out there
Susan Francis, deputy director of the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, speaks at the Expungement Fair in 2015. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Although the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service has been helping state residents get free legal services since 1981, new technology is now making the process faster and easier.

MVLS launched its “pro bono portal” about a month ago to allow attorneys browsing cases to filter them by location and type.

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And the upgrade will also make it so jurisdictions can better understand the people who live there, MVLS Deputy Director Susan Francis said during a trip to Carroll County in late July.

The portal is an upgrade from the former system which involved sending interested attorneys a sampling of cases from which to choose. The issue with that system, she explained, is that some attorneys would get a case they couldn’t take on because it didn’t fall under their area of expertise or was too far away — and oftentimes by the time an attorney expressed interest in a case, it was already assigned to someone else.

“It pulls directly out of the case management system in real time [now],” she said. “And attorneys can search by the legal area they are interested in — it gives people a much more tangible reality of how many folks we have here [that need help].”

In Carroll County, Francis said the most common need for legal services is in family law — cases that involve divorce, child custody and visitation.

But there are also other legal issues that many people don’t realize they can get help with, she said.

She went to Carroll Hospital, Westminster Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army, senior centers and public libraries during her recent trip to Carroll County. The deputy director said in going to places that already provide services in the community, she can find people who need additional help.

“If you put a client in front of me with Social Services, I’m going to be able to find a legal issue I can help with. Many people have three or four legal issues,” Francis said. “It’s not enough to say, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ Once they sort of understand, it’s really an easy connection. It’s wonderful if we can work with a community that’s already helping them.”

Francis said other services MVLS offers that could be of use to residents are: estate planning — as complications often follow a loved one’s death if the proper measures are not taken to ensure a home is legally in the right hands — and expungement, because having even one conviction on a criminal record can keep someone from getting a job for years, or the right job forever.

Zoa Barnes, a local attorney from Hill, Barnes & McInerney LLC in Westminster, said she agrees the majority of cases she sees in Carroll County involve family law — specifically custody battles. She has been an MVLS volunteer since 1996 and has taken on 33 pro bono cases with the organization.

“You know when people have complex divorce cases involving houses and retirement accounts, they don't tend to require pro bono resources because they have financial resources,” Barnes explained. “So the ones we see probably the most of are custody cases.

“Sometimes grandparents [are] getting involved because of drug activity with the parents, sometimes the parents are fighting because of substance abuse activity between one or the other,” she said.

Another local attorney, Samantha Smith, of Timchula & Smith P.A. in Westminster, has taken on 27 pro bono cases for MVLS and said she likes working with the organization because they can screen people looking for help to make sure that those who truly need the assistance receive it, she said.

The new system makes it easier for attorneys who have extra time to pick up pro bono cases to get matched with the right clients.

“I used it the other day,” she said. “It’s a great system because as attorneys there are times when you have the ability to pick up your own pro bono case and the portal gives us the flexibility to choose what you can take on — I don’t have the time to pick up a custody [case] but I do have time for a fairly easy divorce with not a lot of property.

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“Also, I’m really going to focus my pro bono in Carroll County because that’s where I am,” she said.

Smith takes on the cases even when she is busy, she said, because it is so rewarding.

“I think one of the reasons a lot of lawyers do pro bono is because they recognize there is a need,” Smith said. “I find a lot of clients are very appreciative of the services. It makes you want to do it again.”

But aside from pro bono work, she said in Carroll County she believes helping people represent themselves in civil cases is the biggest area of need.

“If you don’t understand enough about the system,” Smith said, “you’re going to run into a lot of problems. There are rules and you’re in this system of rules. It’s a lot to ask people who don’t understand it and go through the system regularly.”

For those services, help is available from the Family Law Administration at the Carroll County Circuit Court, where Barnes also volunteers.

“Our courts have gone through great lengths these past few years to make legal services available to people who can’t afford attorneys,” Barnes said. “There are lots of forms online, if you go to the judicial website, for people who are filing for visitation, divorce … . We help people at the courthouse with these forms, answer questions they may have.”

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