By Megan Poinski
It could cost up to $106 million to provide poor Marylanders with the legal help and representation they need for civil cases, according to a new study by the Maryland Access to Justice Commission.
In her introductory letter, retired Court of Appeals Judge Irma Raker, who chairs the commission, said the study was done to “advance the statewide conversation about a civil right to counsel.” It looks at how the state might establish a program where everyone would have an “equal right to justice” in civil courts and estimates how much that would cost.
Under current law, anyone charged with a crime has a right to have an attorney represent them, regardless of if he or she can pay for it. If a person has a civil dispute – such as a case involving a landlord and tenant, or child custody battles – most of the time he or she would have to pay an attorney for assistance. Some people who cannot afford to hire attorneys go to the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, but it has limited resources. And in most situations where a person needs to go to court, expertise goes a long way.
“There are situations where people really, really need lawyers,” said state Sen. Brian Frosh, a lawyer who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee. “Legal Aid is already stretched beyond its limit.”
The study commission looked at the number of people who represented themselves in “basic human needs” cases – situations like landlord disputes, domestic violence, child custody and support, medical assistance, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and income maintenance. Last year, 689,000 people represented themselves in these cases. By looking at the state’s income demographics, commission members felt that 344,000 of them might qualify for assistance because of household incomes of less than $30,000.
The commission figured that it would cost an attorney $80 per hour to assist these people, and that it would take an average of four hours for an attorney to resolve each case – or $320 each. Multiplying the number of people who would qualify for assistance by the cost, minus an administrative fee of $25, the state would need to foot a $106 million bill.
This funding would be in addition to what Legal Aid and similar organizations already receive.
Frosh said that he is quite familiar with the problems that the state’s poorest residents face when they have to go to court for a civil matter, especially one like a landlord-tenant dispute where a person representing himself will be at an automatic disadvantage. Frosh has advocated increasing funding to Legal Aid, but he was surprised at the cost the report outlined.
“That’s a big number,” he said. “The need is there, but it’s no surprise to anybody that we’re in the middle of a continuing fiscal crisis, and we’re cutting programs we already have.”