Though less often the subject of TV shows and novels than criminal cases, cases of civil law can have deeply felt consequences on an individual or family. These consequences can be even greater for low-income individuals who have less access to legal resources and defense.
In the state, a private, nonprofit legal services provider, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) is working to address this need in the legal system.
"The consequences if you don't have legal representation are stark," Bonnie Sullivan, executive director of MVLS, said.
They deal with family law, estate planning, tax law, deed transfers, name changes, identity theft and many other areas of civil laws.
According to a news release from MVLS, "in the past 12 months, 14 Carroll County lawyers provided free legal services to Maryland residents." Of those lawyers, some took on five or more pro bono cases, including those who worked with multiple clients during a clinic hosted by the organization.
Statewide, 3,206 pro bono cases were closed through individual representation or assistance at a clinic in the past year, according to the release. Collectively, donated legal services were valued at more than $4.6 million.
To receive services from MVLS, a Maryland resident must meet a certain level of financial need. More information about this is available at mvlslaw.org. The organization will then match the resident with a lawyer who specializes in the kind of legal work they need.
"We match one lawyer, one volunteer, for the life of the case," said Susan Francis, deputy director of MVLS.
In particularly complicated family law cases, especially those that are highly contested, MVLS can work through the Judicare program to provide a reduced fee to lawyers.
"It's a way to bridge the supply and demand issue," Sullivan said.
One member of the MVLS board, Michael Clevenger, works in Westminster where he is a personal trust specialist at BB&T.
"A lot of it is a 30,000-foot view of the organization," he said of working on the board. "We steer it in the right direction with its mission and vision."
Sullivan said that while MVLS is not involved in the day-to-day work of each of the cases they assign, they can step in when there are problems to help ensure that the case is resolved.
"We jump right in and try to mediate," Sullivan said. "Most of the time it's around expectations and communication."
One of the most commonly used services that MVLS can provide is expungement. When a person is charged with a crime in Maryland, a record of the case remains even if the case is later dropped or the individual is found not guilty.
Clevenger said that record can be a hurdle for seeking employment. By expunging the records, MVLS can help low-income Marylanders secure employment or housing.
"It can help anyone that's trying to get back on their feet," he said.
According to Sullivan, Maryland, like most states, does not have mandatory rules for how many hours of pro bono work a lawyer must complete, but the aspirational goal is to have each lawyer complete 50 hours of pro bono work per year.
She said the benefits of completing pro bono work through an organization like MVLS include the ability to seek waived filing fees and the security of the organization's malpractice insurance.
As a board member, Clevenger as helps recruit more lawyers to volunteer with the organization. One of the challenges is getting the word out about the organization to more people.
One way they can do this is through training sessions for lawyers. Upcoming on Oct. 20 is a session called Best Practices in Family Law, which is free and open to all law practitioners, and will let lawyers communicate with judges and magistrates from Carroll County about the ways they approach family law cases. In exchange for attending, lawyers are asked to take one pro bono case through MVLS. Clevenger said, "All we ask is that they take one case, and we give them a lot of training for free."
Those seeking legal assistance through MVLS can find information about income requirements online at mvlslaw.org. Maryland residents can apply for assistance online or by calling 800-510-0050. Family law cases must be addressed by phone.