ANNAPOLIS – Many Marylanders without law degrees or deep pockets are acting as their own attorneys in certain civil cases. And they usually lose.
So a state task force this month recommended assigning free lawyers in certain family law cases, and increasing state funding to existing legal aid programs by $2 million each year for four years until funding reaches an additional $8 million per year.
Nervous, confused and lost is what many reported feeling as they prepared to face their day in court without a lawyer to defend them.
“I don’t have any clue, I don’t have any idea at all what I’m doing,” said Sara Smith, 22, who earlier this month was seeking legal advice for her divorce and child custody case at the Family Law Self Help Center, a clinic based out of the law library in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County in Annapolis, that provides free walk-in legal advice for the lawyer-less.
Only those charged with criminal offenses in the U.S. have the right to a lawyer at public expense under the Constitution, not those involved in civil disputes. In Maryland, except for certain types of cases, people involved in civil matters must represent themselves in court if they can’t afford a lawyer.
And few can afford the high rates, which run around $80 per hour on the cheap side, not to mention myriad other costs and filing fees involved with going to court, said John Pollock, an attorney at the Public Justice Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization in Maryland.
“They don’t even have enough for their basic necessities,” he said, “much less legal representation.”
About 80 percent of low-income Marylanders involved in civil lawsuits represent themselves in court. In critical civil matters, people were 6.5 times as likely to succeed if they had representation, according to a comprehensive analysis of studies cited by a Maryland task force.
The Task Force to Study Implementing a Civil Right to Counsel in Maryland is a group of judges, attorneys, delegates and state senators that has been meeting since December to discuss the benefits of providing legal representation to low-income people involved in civil disputes.
Going through the complicated process of law can be overwhelming and intimidating without help, said Maria Rhine, 48, who was also at the law library recently, seeking help filing for emergency custody of her grandchild.
“Knowing what paperwork to fill out, that’s a challenge, what steps to take,” she said. “It’s a scary situation.”
Some fear they may break down or get too emotional in court, potentially affecting the outcome of their case. Having a lawyer to speak for them could help ease that stress, said Bonnie Parker, 58, who is fighting for visitation rights for her grandchild.
“He or she could be that voice for me that I need because it is emotional,” said Parker, also looking for assistance at the help center earlier this month.
Low-income Marylanders who qualify for legal aid should have a right to a lawyer at public expense in civil cases involving basic human needs, including child custody and civil domestic violence matters, two types of high-stakes cases with high rates of self-representation in Maryland, according to the report, which the task force submitted to Gov. Martin O’Malley and the Maryland General Assembly on Oct. 1.
The task force did not specify income levels for legal aid under the new programs.
To qualify for help from Maryland Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm that provides civil legal aid to low-income Marylanders, one must fall within 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, meaning an annual salary of less than $14,588 for an individual and less than $29,813 for a family of four.
Clients of most other existing low-income legal assistance programs must meet Maryland Legal Services Corp. guidelines, which require an annual household income for a family of four of less than $52,674, and an individual income of less than $27,390.
The majority of clients at the Family Law Self Help Center are involved in custody cases, and most fall within federal poverty guidelines, although the center’s walk-in hours are open to anyone without a lawyer regardless of income, said Amanda Eden, managing attorney at Maryland Legal Aid, who met with clients at the law library on a recent Tuesday.
Family law cases, which include child custody and domestic violence matters, make up over one-third of all cases filed in the state, according to the Maryland Legal Services Corp., which raises funds and gives grants to legal aid nonprofits.
People involved in these types of cases need the most pro bono help of any other civil case type in Maryland, said Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, who served on the task force.
At least one party had to represent themselves in 78 percent of family law cases heard in Maryland in 2010, according to the task force’s report.
To address this problem, the task force suggests the state increase funding to existing legal aid services and fund pilot programs that focus on family law matters by rolling out $2 million of new money every year for four years until funding reaches an additional $8 million per year.
Although providing this service would be an expensive investment, it may save the state money in the long run, said Debra Gardner, legal director of the Public Justice Center.
Trials would run more smoothly and efficiently if both parties were represented by professional lawyers, she said. The state would also save on extra social services it may otherwise have to provide for people who lose their cases and need further interventions later on, she said.
“It saves money for society in other ways by preventing homelessness, instability in families, shelter costs and other kinds of costs,” she said. “Paying for a lawyer handling the case may be quite cost-effective by comparison.”
A bill, sponsored by Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, outlining the task force’s recommendations will be introduced to the legislature at the start of the next session, which begins on Jan. 14, said Dumais, who plans to co-sponsor the bill.
Expanding Legal Support in Child Custody Cases
Low-income parents and children in child welfare cases involving allegations of abuse or neglect of a child already have the right to a lawyer at public expense in Maryland, but not in custody disputes between parents. About 31,000 additional low-income parents would qualify for legal aid if that right were extended to custody matters, according to a 2011 report of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission.
To serve these low-income parents, the task force suggests using the Judicare Family Law Project, an existing Maryland program funded by the Maryland Legal Services Corp., to pilot the idea of providing lawyers to parents in all child custody cases.
The task force suggests the state gradually increase funding over the course of the next four years to reach $3 million annually to expand Judicare programs in Baltimore City and Prince George’s, Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties, which together represented 30 percent of all civil family law cases filed in the state in 2013, according to the Maryland Judiciary Annual Statistical Abstract, a report from the Maryland Courts.
More Lawyers for Civil Domestic-Violence Cases
To aid low-income Marylanders involved in civil domestic-violence cases, the task force suggests increasing state funding over the course of four years to reach $4.8 million per year to fund organizations that provide legal representation, among other services, to victims of domestic violence, like the House of Ruth Maryland in Baltimore.
Victims of domestic violence can file for a week-long protective measure without a long legal procedure, but receiving a full restraining order involves a court process, especially if the case includes other complicating factors like child custody or financial matters, said Jane Murphy, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Murphy studied the strategies used by women dealing with domestic violence and found that of those who filed for restraining orders, less than half were granted the full restraining order, according to a 2003 study she authored. Of those who had a lawyer, 83 percent were successful in getting the restraining order while only 32 percent of those without legal counsel managed to win their case, according to her study.
Lawyers should be provided for income-eligible victims as well as the alleged abusers so that the trial is fair and balanced, according to the task force.
“In my experience women don’t seek (restraining orders) frivolously,” Murphy said “But having an attorney on both sides is consistent with our legal system.”
See the task force’s full report here: http://bit.ly/1yI3lGN.