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In State of Judiciary, Maryland's chief judge cites gains in legal counsel for unrepresented litigants in civil cases

In State of Judiciary, Maryland's chief judge cites gains in legal counsel for unrepresented litigants in civil cases
Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, who is the head of Maryland's highest court, delivers her State of the Judiciary Address to a joint session of the Maryland General Assembly on Wednesday. (Brian Witte / AP)

Maryland's judiciary is helping more people who can't afford legal counsel to better represent themselves in civil legal matters, the state's chief judge said Wednesday in her State of the Judiciary Address.

Since 2015, the state's judiciary has funded four additional self-help centers, phone and online chat services and educational videos that provide legal advice for matters in the district and circuit courts, Judge Mary Ellen Barbera told a joint session of the General Assembly. The four added centers were in Baltimore, Frederick, Salisbury and Upper Marlboro.

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"The doors to justice must open wide to all in every court in our great state and, once inside those doors, meaningful justice should be consistently available," Barbera said.

Remote legal assistance was offered for the first time in the state in fiscal year 2012, when attorneys helped more than 13,000 unrepresented litigants in civil legal matters involving housing, custody, employment and consumer debt. Last fiscal year, attorneys in self-help centers assisted nearly 71,000 litigants by remote means, Barbera said, and nearly 144,000 people overall.

Attorneys volunteered to help unrepresented litigants for about 1.2 million hours last year, Barbera said, but she noted that met only about 20 percent of the need.

"Until such time that representation is assured for all who need it, we continue to improve the services that inform and prepare self-represented litigants," Barbera said.

Barbera, who is Maryland's first female chief judge, last gave a State of the Judiciary Address in 2015. In that speech, she told lawmakers that the state was only a few months into deploying Maryland's Electronic Courts system. It is creating a single judiciary-wide integrated case management system that will be used by all the courts in the state system to collect, store and process records electronically.

Today, the judge said, 20 of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions are now online. She said the four largest jurisdictions — Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties and the city of Baltimore — will be online by 2021.

"MDEC is allowing us to move to a single statewide platform that is available to users 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Barbera said.

Barbera also said many of the judiciary's successes since her last speech four years ago resulted from efforts to help people in crisis and in the state's problem-solving courts. She noted aid to veterans in the Veteran's Treatment Court and Drug Court.

"Today, problem-solving courts are proven approaches to addressing criminal behavior, mental health concerns, recidivism and addiction," Barbera said.

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