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MVLS no longer a free service

Anyone applying for (free) legal help at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service will have to pay a $25 fee, starting today.

Maryland Legal Aid’s Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr. called MVLS’ decision to charge clients an application fee ‘unfortunate.’ ‘Those who are least equipped to pay are getting charged,’ he added.

The nonprofit, which connects those in need of legal services with volunteer attorneys, announced the application fee in an email Thursday evening but noted that it could be waived for applicants at or below the poverty level.

Those who are referred to the group by Maryland Legal Aid Bureau Inc. also do not have to pay the fee.

“You don’t want to create an extra burden for a low-income person, but on some level, we have to be able to do the job here, and it costs money to do that,” said Richard Chambers, deputy director at MVLS.

The organization is facing budget cuts starting July 1, and Chambers said the fee is needed to offset the high cost of reviewing applications and placing cases with attorneys. The group has five full-time paralegals who receive 800 to 1,000 calls a week and 300 applications a month, Chambers said.

About 130 to 140 cases are placed with volunteer attorneys, mostly in the Baltimore area, Chambers said. If MVLS fails to match the client with a lawyer, the application fee will be refunded, he said.

The group was already charging applicants for family law cases a $25 fee, Chambers said.

“There’s always a fear that someone will look at the application fee and say, ‘I’d rather put that $25 to paying for food or paying for my transportation,’” Chambers said. “Our objective is to make sure that the legal services community and people throughout the Baltimore region and throughout the state know that our waiver policy is a good one and getting $25 refunded is not going to be complicated.”

The move comes just ahead of an across-the-board cut in money from the Maryland Legal Services Corp., which takes effect on July 1. With its own funding from the interest on lawyer trust accounts down sharply and a new surcharge on filing fees producing less income than planned, MLSC reduced grants to its 30 or so receiving organizations by 5 percent for the coming fiscal year, said its executive director Susan M. Erlichman.

Erlichman said MLSC would have cut funding more, but decided to use $500,000 in its reserves to cushion the blow for grantees in the upcoming fiscal year. Last year, MLSC used $1 million from reserves, Erlichman said.

“That’s why we had to cut and not continue to spend as aggressively with the reserves and be fiscally responsible,” Erlichman said.

At Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, the reduction equates to the salary of one full-time staff member, Chambers said.

“It’s a perfect storm for all of us in the legal services community,” he said. “It’s not just a problem now. It’s a problem over the next three or four years. We have to be creative and find ways to balance the needs of our clients and our ability to do our job well.”

Chambers said he expects to collect about $30,000 in application fees in the first year and more in the future. He said that will cover most of the money lost from MLSC.

The group’s board of directors discussed the application fee over the past six to nine months and voted to approve it in early April, he said.

The Women’s Law Center of Maryland Inc. also charges a $25 administrative fee for its Judicare project, which places about 70 low-income clients in Baltimore County custody cases with volunteer attorneys each year, said executive director L. Tracy Brown.

The fee is waived for applicants who are not matched with an attorney and for those who live at or below the poverty line, Brown said.

The Towson-based nonprofit, facing cuts from MLSC as well as other sources, has cut two staff members in the past four years, Brown said.

Even so, it provides some services without charge, she said. Those include its hotlines for employment law, family law and legal forms advice. The center also represents domestic violence victims in protective order hearings and clients on immigration matters, for which it also does not charge a client application fee, Brown said.

Other organizations, like Maryland Legal Aid, are holding the line against fees.

“It’s unfortunate that support for the legal work on behalf of poor people is not forthcoming at a time of their greatest need and their diminished personal resources and that an organization that supports that need has to charge for its help,” executive director Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., said in a statement. “Those who are least equipped to pay are getting charged.”

The Homeless Persons Representation Project Inc. has never and will never charge clients a fee, said Antonia K. Fasanelli, its executive director.

“The goal of our program is to help people get off the streets and into housing, and we want them to save their money to help go toward their housing, not to go toward their lawyers,” Fasanelli said.

The HPRP hosts a collaborative legal clinic with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, but there will be no application fees for it, Fasanelli said.

The organization is increasing its other fundraising goals from $100,000 last year to $150,000 for the coming fiscal year, Fasanelli said. It has reached out to new foundations for support and is planning a new fundraising event for September, she said.

The Maryland Disability Law Center provides most of its legal services through its 30-member staff of attorneys and paralegals, said Meghan Marsh, staff attorney at the organization. The group also refers some clients out to volunteer attorneys. It does not charge for either service, Marsh said.

Like the other groups, Marsh said the MDLC has been trying to close the gap in legal services money by increasing its fundraising efforts.

“It is more important than ever that we try to support our work with heretofore untraditional fundraising sources and step up private fundraising to make up for it,” Marsh said. “As the economy went bad, the need for services is greater. I think that’s something every legal aid service has experienced.”