October 24, 2011

Clients are up, funding is down for free legal aid

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By Barbara Pash
Barbara@MarylandReporter.com

As the economy has slowed, the demand for free civil legal services has risen, but funding for those services has not increased.

Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland logo“The situation is dire,” said Sharon Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland. “The programs are feeling stretched beyond their limits. The funding is not there.”

The center — the pro bono arm of the Maryland Bar Association serving as a clearinghouse for lawyers’ volunteer services — is a statewide nonprofit entity. Nowadays, Goldsmith said, center volunteers are seeing “a lot” of formerly middle-income people who would not have qualified for free legal help before. This is “a whole new group of people” asking for help, she said, in addition to the low-income people already being served.

Demand rising

The center Groups providing free legal assistance served nearly 140,000 clients in fiscal 2011, 9% more than 2010. But during that same period, over 44,000 people seeking legal help were turned away for a variety of reasons like being a criminal, rather than a civil, case; over the income eligibility limit;  and not enough staff people and resources.

The Pro Bono Resource Center spearheaded coordination of volunteer legal services for the foreclosure prevention project, a 2008 state-wide initiative to deal with the home mortgage crisis. In 2010, the project was expanded to include mediation but the center continued to play a role in training attorneys and coordinating public workshops around the state.

In fiscal 2010, state and federal grants to the Maryland foreclosure mediation program amounted to $700,000; in fiscal 2011, the figure was $509,000 because of funding drops.

Although the number of foreclosure filings in court subsequently slowed down., since January 2011 they have begun to increase. “I doubt we will see an increase in funding,” said Goldsmith, who credits lawyers with stepping up their pro bono activity to compensate.

3,000 attorneys volunteer

Maryland Volunteer lawyer Services logoAt Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, the demand for legal services rose 6% from fiscal 2010 to 2011, straining the approximately 3,000 attorneys who donate their time there.

Many of the lawyers who work with MVLS are in solo practices or small firms. Their ability to volunteer is being limited by their need to earn billable hours, said Richard Chambers, deputy director. Many are also changing careers, Chambers said. In the last three years, the number of attorneys taking cases has decreased 20%, although other volunteers have picked up the slack, he said.

MVLS has boosted its private fundraising among corporations and law firms, whose support now accounts for 40% of its budget.

“We’d love to expand our phone intake. We’d love to have more outreach to the lower Eastern Shore, to St. Mary’s and Frederick counties. We can’t do it. We are at capacity” for clients, said Chambers. “We know there are probably thousands of people who qualify for our services.”

Too many clients, too few chairs

Maryland legal aid logoAt Maryland Legal Aid, the jump in clients is apparent “in our lobby any morning,” said Wilhelm Joseph, executive director.

“We used to add chairs as the room got full,” Joseph said. “Now, we don’t have enough chairs for all the people looking for help.”

The private nonprofit law firm saw nearly 70,000 clients in 2011, versus 62,000 in 2010 and 42,000 in 2006.  Legal Aid also now has a broader client demographic, which now includes “the former working class and the middle-class,” Joseph characterized. “They’ve been out of jobs for several months and are facing issues like getting unemployment and food stamps, and mortgage foreclosure.”

Since 2008, Legal Aid has seen default on debt and wage garnishment cases rise 30%. Unemployment insurance cases are up 153%. Public assistance cases are up 156%, and food stamp cases have increased 72%. In the same time period, the number of cases where Legal Aid just gave advice to clients they could not represent — often because Legal Aid was operating at capacity — has risen 28%.

Legal Aid’s annual budget is almost $25 million, with funds from federal and state grants, contracts with local jurisdictions through state agencies, and private sources. While funding has risen steadily over the years, the situation overall “is getting worse,” said Joseph.

“There is increased demand, funding is getting much more difficult, and operating costs go up,” he said.

Maryland Legal Services Corporation logoSusan Erlichman is executive director of Maryland Legal Services Corporation, whose annual budget of about $16 million is distributed to 35 programs around the state.

The corporation’s major funding sources are, by statue, interest on lawyer trust accounts and court filing fee surcharges. It also receives a small amount from the state abandoned property fund.

Though the corporation’s major funding sources are set by statute, its funds have decreased with the economy. From 2009 to 2011, trust account interest revenue fell from $7 million to $2 million — about 70%, Erlichman said.

In 2010, the General Assembly increased the court fee surcharge at MLSC’s request. The new income filled the interest funding hole.

“Without the increased surcharge, the whole legal services delivery system in the state would be in danger of collapse,” said Erlichman.

Nonetheless, the increased surcharge is scheduled to sunset in 2013, and she and others in the legal services community are doing what they can to ensure it continues. “It would leave us in a devastating situation,” said Erlichman.