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Joe Surkiewicz: The changing face of civil legal need in P.G. County

Starting in 2008, the face of low-income clients in Prince George’s County desperate for free civil legal services took a dramatic turn. Family law clients took a back seat to people under the threat of losing their homes to foreclosure.

“I never thought we’d be in the mortgage foreclosure business,” said Neal Conway, executive director of Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County. “I remember going to a housing meeting in 2008 and not figuring out what legal services could do for people who couldn’t make their monthly mortgage payment. Six months later, we were in a partnership with the Pro Bono Resource Center to help prevent foreclosures.”

Founded in 1985, CLS serves the entire county through direct services and by matching clients with pro bono lawyers.

“Until 2008, the majority of cases were family law,” Conway said. “Then the foreclosure crisis came to Prince George’s, which consistently has the highest number of foreclosures in Maryland. Foreclosure prevention is the biggest demand we see now.”

The program’s panel of volunteer lawyers gets online training from the PBRC. Then CLS matches them with a client. “The work is strictly negotiations, usually to modify a loan,” Conway explained. “We want to see a permanent change for the client. The goal is to keep as many people in their homes as possible.”

Foreclosure prevention is funded by a wide variety of sources — state and federal government grants, as well as foundations — including a recent grant for people considering filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt.

“The court approves and schedules pro bono attorneys and we send our clients to them for free, 30-minute consultations,” Conway said. “If they decide to go ahead and file for Chapter 7, we match them with a volunteer attorney.”

While a number of methods to help people facing foreclosure are available, the biggest problem is persuading folks to seek help.

“Our biggest challenge in foreclosure prevention is getting clients to contact us,” he said. “They often think the problem will go away or they’ll get a new job. But things pile up quickly.”

Some things have changed, however.

“When the foreclosure crisis began in 2008, we saw a lot of scams and loans people couldn’t pay back — and were all interest, no principal,” Conway said. “Now, we don’t see the scams. It’s mostly people unemployed or with salary reductions — economic problems. The loans seem normal. Until the economy booms back, people will struggle to make mortgage payments.”

While the foreclosure crisis takes the top spot, other civil legal problems haven’t gone away.

“We continue to run our Self-Representation Family Law Clinic in the Prince George’s County Circuit Court,” Conway said. “We offer free legal advice five days a week. We could easily double our effort and not meet the demand. It’s mostly custody and divorce cases — also child support. We provide 20 minutes of advice. We urge people to hire an attorney or we match them with a pro bono attorney.”

A judicare program funded by the courts that pays reduced fees to attorneys for family law cases has also proven to be a boon to both clients and attorneys.

“Attorneys call us for cases all the time,” Conway said. “They can get up to $1,600 for a case. As the economy went down, judicare was a godsend to our pro bono attorneys.”

Another clinic in Langley Park serves a large and growing Latino population.

“We started in 1996 by sending a bilingual paralegal,” Conway said. “Now the clinic is held in a police station with a full-time lawyer doing family law. We also have a two-day-a-week clinic for workers’ rights, mostly day laborers with unpaid wage claims. They line up at 4:30 in the morning for day jobs and get on a waiting list to see our attorney, who arrives around 7:30.”

Another clinic in Suitland serves low-income family law clients one day a week. “There are a lot of young families, mostly single mothers with kids, living in the area,” Conway said. Access to the courthouse by public transportation in the county is not good. Clients needing legal services can walk to this clinic.”

While business is up — and not just with foreclosures — CLS’s funding is heading down.

“IOLTA is going down and the Maryland Legal Services Corporation warned us about coming reductions,” Conway said. “Filing fees are down, maybe because people are staying together longer because of the economy and not filing for divorce. Not that our phones have stopped ringing.”

Last year’s budget for the program was nearly a million dollars. CLS has a staff of 13 — not all full time — which includes six lawyers.

“Our budget will drop this year,” Conway said. “Yet the demand is the same. The number of clients we serve outside of foreclosure will remain the same. You can only see so many people in a day.”

With more funding, Conway would hire more staff. “I’m looking at hiring a housing counselor,” he said. “I think I can get the funding. That’s an area that will grow. I don’t see it going away.”

CLS also raises money the old-fashioned way.

“We held our first Fun Run/Walk in April — a 5K run and 3K walk,” Conway said.”We had a big turnout and raised $3,000. It was held at Glenn Dale Community Center with 50 participants. We’ll do it again next year at a different location.”

Attorneys interested in volunteering can call CLS at (301) 864-4907.

Joe Surkiewicz is the director of communications at Maryland Legal Aid. His e-mail is jsurkiewicz@mdlab.org