At 100th anniversary, Md. Legal Aid seeing record caseload

In happier times, David Gaines would have been able to find a job.

The 57-year-old Annapolis man was laid off in 2009 from his job as a sales manager for a company that supplied the drums, cones and message boards that alert motorists to construction.

But "work dried up with road contractors due to the economy," Gaines said. His woes continued with the car wreck that left him homebound in an upper-body cast with back injuries and unable to continue in a part-time job at a golf course.

When his unemployment benefits were cut off, he reached out to the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau. Attorney Virginia Rosa helped him get back the benefits.

"If I hadn't had their help, I probably wouldn't have had it come out that way," Gaines said.

As Marylanders lose jobs, homes and savings, they are turning in record numbers to the state's largest provider of legal services to the poor. The Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month, enters its second century with a growing caseload involving the newly needy.

"They are coming out of the woodwork," said Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., the agency's executive director. "You have people who are formerly middle class and for the first time in their lives, they have lost their jobs."

These are the clients who suddenly need help figuring out how to get food stamps, cash assistance and unemployment, Joseph said. They often have run out of savings and have no idea how to keep their utilities on.

"There comes a point of desperation where you say, 'What am I going to do?' " he said.

Legal Aid, which employs about 150 lawyers around the state, has seen its annual caseload grow from less than 42,000 five years ago to nearly 70,000 in the fiscal year that ended in June.

The challenges faced by clients reflect the times. Unemployment insurance cases are up 150 percent in the last four years. Consumer collection cases — default on debt, Social Security attachments and the like — are up 30 percent.

The increase in demand for legal services comes amid growing concern of federal budget cuts. And it comes as new U.S. Census figures show that the number of Baltimoreans living in poverty has increased by 25 percent.

To qualify for help from Legal Aid, clients must show an annual family income of no more than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $27,937 for a family of four. Depending on circumstances, individuals may qualify who earn no more than half of the state's median income, or $26,367 for a single person, typically for advice or other limited help.

As Washington focuses on fiscal austerity, the agency has relied on money from state dollars, court fees and donations to maintain its budget, Joseph said.

Among new clients, William Byers is typical.

The 59-year-old Mount Airy man was making $18 an hour as a plumber until he was laid off in 2009. After his request for unemployment benefits was rejected, he turned to Legal Aid.

Attorney Alecia Frisby helped Byers secure his benefits.

"I gave up on it," he said. "But she kept working at it."

Frisby has mixed feelings about praise from colleagues for winning the case.

"I say, 'Yeah, but he already lost his house.' "

Because many new clients have no idea how to navigate unemployment claims, Frisby holds a monthly class in Carroll County to teach people how to help themselves.

Nationally, analysts estimate that between 20 percent and 30 percent of legal needs of the poor are unmet, often because people don't seek help. Officials here say Maryland is no exception.

The state court system contracted Legal Aid in December 2009 to operate a self-help center in the District Court in Glen Burnie. Its lawyers advise people — regardless of income — but do not represent them.

The service grew recently from one to three attorneys, Joseph said. The center handled a record 626 walk-ins last month.

In a move to extend the reach of the self-help center, staff now also answer legal questions online.

Walk-in applications for help at a Baltimore center have grown by 25 percent over the last three years, supervisor Bobbie Steyer said. Many days, as many as 70 people show up.

"We are seeing people we never would have been seeing before," Steyer said. "Most of the people are really surprised to find themselves at Legal Aid."

Cases opened by fiscal year:

2007: 41,245

2008: 54,631

2009: 56,556

2010: 62,356

2011: 69,723