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Access to just enough of law

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In what experts say is the most ambitious effort in the country to improve legal services for low- and moderate-income people, Maryland is pulling together an expansive network of resources to streamline access to the law and justice.

With the help of a $1 million grant, the Maryland Legal Assistance Network (MLAN) is aiming to enhance the work being done by 28 organizations, law school clinics, private lawyers and the courts, by using a combination of technology, a statewide hot line and improved services.

Seen as a model for the nation, it has pilot projects in the works and, this fall, expects to add key programs.

"The idea is to get marginalized people access to courts and justice," said Ayn H. Crawley, hired last year by the Maryland Legal Services Corp. as the director of its MLAN project.

"Maryland has one of the best legal aid systems in the country. But we are not meeting the need," said Robert J. Rhudy, executive director of the Maryland Legal Services Corp. "We believe in Maryland we are meeting maybe one-quarter of the need."

The creation of what is envisioned as a huge support and coordination network is being made possible by a three-year, $1 million grant in fall 1998 from hedge fund mogul George Soros' Open Society Institute to the Maryland Legal Services Corp.

"Our national office got very excited about this because they see this as a model for the nation," said Diana L. Morris, director of OSI-Baltimore.

Maryland's push is part of a national trend to entwine and extend the help and advice in civil law that in most places are offered by a hodgepodge of agencies to people who cannot afford a lawyer.

Much of what Maryland is aiming to create exists elsewhere, but generally on a smaller scale. The coordination at a statewide level would be new, said Martha Bergmark, vice president for programs at the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association.

Various parts of the project target different populations, from the poorest to moderate-income residents, from non-English speakers to Web-savvy computer users, from people who are unsure where to begin to those who can resolve a hefty part of their legal problems with a bit of help.

The parts are being designed to fit together like a puzzle.

Overseeing the project is Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the state, whose influence was considered crucial to getting the OSI grant and all of the players involved and sharing their expertise.

The courts, Bell said, had to take a key role: "It is self protection, actually. It is part of the mandate that the judiciary has. We exist to resolve disputes in a civilized society."

But that works only when people believe the legal system works for them, he said: "If they are shut out of the system, they are not likely to have very much faith or confidence in the system."

Moving the case along

That means separating legal from other issues, getting paperwork filled out correctly and having a lawyer who can take on a small but complex part of case at a reduced fee or free - all of which can move a case along to the benefit of everyone involved, Bell said.

How many more Marylanders might benefit is unknown, especially with parts of the network geared to do-it-yourself legal help.

There are four main components. Two make extensive use of the Internet to provide information. For example, often-used legal forms will be translated into other languages and put online.

The first of the four components is a hot line, a central telephone number for intake and referral that does triage. Callers will give basic information so they are sent to the appropriate agency. A senior citizen hot line has just started.

"Hopefully, we will have fewer people calling here and saying, 'I have called five programs and nobody can help me,'" said Sharon Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center in Baltimore.

The hot line, which might begin operation in six to eight months, will have a direct telephone connection with the five groups that provide three-fourths of all low-income legal services: the Legal Aid Bureau, Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., the Women's Law Center, the House of Ruth and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.

Callers will be given telephone numbers to the other agencies.

First of many hot lines

The granddaddy of regional legal hot lines opened in 1993 for Cook County, Ill.

"It was such a departure in legal services that many thought that it could never work. Now there are probably about 100 hot lines around the country," said Mary Ann Sarosi, its founding executive director.

Of 14,000 cases it gets a year, about two-thirds are handled quickly - many need only telephone advice on their legal rights - and one-third are transferred to legal aid groups, said Leslie Corbett, current director.

Maryland's system will ship data between providers as well, eliminating the clients' repetition of information, Carwley said.

The second component is the expansion of the 5-year-old People's Law Library, an Internet site founded by the University of Maryland. Legal organizations are adding and maintaining sections on their specialty, such as tenant rights and immigration.

More forms are going online that people can use to take care of their own less complex matters. What sets the People's Law Library apart from companies that offer forms and explanations of the law is that the People's Law Library is free and only about Maryland.

The third component is a virtual support center, geared mostly toward lawyers, allowing them to obtain legal information quickly online.

The fourth is expanding the number of people getting limited legal services and the number of lawyers providing them.

Instead of a package deal divorce, a lawyer could take on the only complicated part, for example, preserving pension rights, Crawley said.

National conference planned

In October, MLAN will convene the first national conference on providing limited, task-oriented representation, which will look at ethical and practical issues as well as trends.

Clinics around the state give limited help to low- and moderate-income people, mostly in family law. While a person might be able to fill out a name-change form alone, he could need professional help negotiating the legal maze of winning custody of a grandchild.

Some people opt out of the legal system because they can't afford the package deals, others out of distaste for the adversarial process, said Michael A. Millemann, a University of Maryland Law School professor who created the pro se, or assisted self-help, clinic for family law in the mid-1990s staffed with law students.

"Limited legal services does encourage them and allow many of them to buy or obtain many of the services they need and want to resolve the problem," he said.

Need for trained advocate

At the clinics, several things became clear, he said.

A significant number of people could afford to pay some fee but not a hefty retainer for a lawyer to handle all of their problems.

When a judge has wide discretion, for example in custody, it's better to have a trained advocate. Often, the first step - serving papers on a parent whose whereabouts were unknown - was the hardest.

MLAN's Crawley said outreach to the public - an outreach legal office is expected to open soon in Charles Village - and explanations of legal concepts in other languages to make translation more accurate are among other facets of this expanded approach to legal services.

While many of the new pieces might be running in months, she expects the network will be refined and expanded in coming years.

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