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Need for helping people with civil court matters grows with pandemic | COMMENTARY

Normal revenue streams for civil aid are declining as more people need their services during the pandemic.
Normal revenue streams for civil aid are declining as more people need their services during the pandemic.

Everyone acknowledges the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on Maryland residents and businesses. Hundreds of thousands of Maryland households are at risk of eviction. More than 1 million people have filed for unemployment since March. Calls to the Maryland Court Self-Help Centers related to domestic violence surged as survivors were confined at home with their abusers.

As a lawyer and business leader, I know these negative effects of the pandemic share a common remedy: civil legal aid. Civil legal problems are common. They include things like child custody, foreclosure, eviction, bankruptcy, protective orders, access to benefits and more. They affect our family, neighbors, employees and customers.

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Unlike criminal cases, there is no right to an attorney in most civil cases, meaning people who cannot afford an attorney could be left to handle these complicated issues on their own. The ongoing health and economic emergencies have both exacerbated existing civil legal problems and created new ones. In a wise move, Gov. Larry Hogan and Attorney General Brian Frosh recently announced that the state will direct $11.7 million to Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC) — urgently needed funds that will address many of these problems.

MLSC currently provides funding to 36 civil legal aid nonprofits, covering every Maryland jurisdiction. The services provided by these organizations — including representation at rent court, help applying for public benefits, obtaining protection from domestic violence and more — will be critical in helping the surging number of low-income Marylanders recover from the pandemic. Investing in civil legal aid alongside other essential supportive services is exactly the kind of stimulus our economy and Maryland families need amid this crisis.

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Not only do civil legal services help people in need, they also reduce the burden on the court system and streamline interactions with state agencies, saving valuable time and funds. Civil legal aid safeguards the basic human needs of Maryland residents, and the resulting economic stability has positive ripple effects across the state. Studies in Maryland and across the country have shown that investing in civil legal aid pays dividends in the form of increased economic activity and saved costs related to public services. The positive economic impact benefits Maryland’s families and helps keep the state open for business.

Civil legal aid organizations also provide the structure through which corporate counsel and other attorneys provide more than 100,000 hours of pro bono service each year. This pro bono work increases the availability of services to people in need, but also has the added benefit of providing both a connection to the community and valuable legal experience for our employees.

These funds come at a critical time as the pandemic has also had a tremendous negative impact on funding for civil legal aid. Due to interest rate cuts and court closures, MLSC, the largest funder of civil legal services in the state, is facing a decline of nearly $10 million from its regular funding sources for the fiscal year that began July 1. Without this new funding, MLSC would have had to make significant cuts to current grants, devastating the delivery system. The new funding will make a tremendous impact for this year, and Marylanders in need of legal aid in the face of the pandemic will benefit greatly from the recent actions of the governor and attorney general.

However, this is one-time money that won’t be available going forward, while the pandemic’s impact on MLSC’s budget will be felt for several years to come. Now is the perfect time for Maryland to solidify its investment in civil legal aid. Marylanders will need ongoing help to avoid a series of further catastrophes that would hamper any chances of a sustainable rebound, for the state or its residents.

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We urge Governor Hogan to appropriate adequate funding for MLSC as he prepares his next budget to make up the organization’s continued loss of revenue. Many other states recognize the critical importance of civil legal aid by ensuring a consistent line-item budget appropriation. We also urge the Maryland General Assembly to explore all available avenues to enhance sustainable funding for civil legal aid. We recognize the upcoming legislative session and state budget process will be full of competing priorities. But investing in civil legal aid will address many problems of low-income Marylanders at the outset, helping stabilize their lives and avoiding other issues — issues that can be costly to the state in the long run.

Additional resources will be needed to help civil legal aid providers meet the dramatically increased demand. Their vital work ensures all Marylanders — not just those with the ability to pay for legal assistance — get the help they need.

Meryl Burgin (Meryl.Burgin@carefirst.com) is executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. She is a member of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission and Maryland Attorney General’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force.

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