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Editorial: Fund Legal Services

This one really is a no-brainer.

In a little more than four months, one of the critical funding mechanisms for legal assistance to low-income individuals is set to expire. If the increased surcharge on filing fees in civil cases is allowed to sunset, the nonprofit Maryland Legal Services Corp. would lose 40 percent of its available funds — about $6 million.

If the General Assembly allows this to happen, it would strike a devastating blow to the venerable legal and ethical principle of equal justice regardless of income level.

In an industry that regularly sees eight-figure awards in civil suits in Maryland, an extra $8 to $30 on civil filings in the past few years has scarcely raised an eyebrow. It is a minor investment with a major impact in terms of its contribution to an equitable judicial system.

In the most recent fiscal year, MLSC provided $15.7 million in grants to 35 legal services providers, which used that money to open roughly 160,000 new cases. The cases run the gamut from divorce and child custody battles to foreclosures and bankruptcies.

The recipients of this aid are means-tested and have real, pressing legal matters that often require immediate attention.

In many cases, such as those involving negligent landlords, predatory banks, complex divorces or painful custody battles, the people needing assistance are facing off against those who have already retained legal counsel. Though there is no constitutional guarantee of legal representation in civil cases, by ensuring that all have access to an attorney, the spirit of fairness intrinsic to our justice system is served.

Our system is not intended to bend toward those who can afford high-end litigators. It is, however, intended to ensure that justice is done based solely on the merits of one’s argument and the application of the law to the facts.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, has introduced a bill that would remove the sunset provision from the additional surcharge and a bill to provide some additional revenue by raising MLSC’s share of the state’s abandoned property fund.

The preamble to the legislative act that created MLSC more than 30 years ago provides perhaps the strongest rationale for extending this critical funding stream: “There is a need to provide equal access to the system of justice for individuals who seek redress of grievances. There is a need to continue and expand legal assistance to those who would otherwise be unable to afford adequate legal counsel.”

That’s an ideal that even the most hardened fiscal conservatives should have difficulty opposing.