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Joe Surkiewicz: MVLS helping low-income Marylanders

Since its founding in 1981, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service has assisted more than 70,000 low-income clients with legal help, ranging from foreclosure prevention and debtor assistance to tax assistance and family law matters.

Since the economic downturn, however, the focus has shifted in a state where 166,000 people with urgent civil legal problems (and who qualify for free legal aid) can’t get a lawyer because of capacity issues.

With civil legal resources so limited, what’s the best area of law to focus on?

“Consumer law gets to the heart of the matter,” said MVLS executive director Bonnie Sullivan. “People need to be able to stay in their homes, keep their families close and protect themselves from fraud.

“But it’s all dimmed by a financial system that preys on the poor,” she explained. “It’s a shameful fact that isn’t well known. Payday lenders, bad landlords and car dealers — it becomes a domino effect for many Marylanders. Low- or fixed-income people are struggling and need help navigating the legal system.”

In response, MVLS has created a number of programs for low-income families with pressing financial matters.

Free clinics

The Consumer Protection Project, initiated last fall, conducts clinics at district court that provide free legal advice to consumers facing debt collection cases. Clients meet with volunteer lawyers in 15-minute consultations on credit card cases, auto loans, and landlord/tenant issues, among others.

“All the people who come to the clinic are unrepresented — and it’s such a significant number of Marylanders,” said deputy director Susan Francis. “It’s our way bringing some order and fairness to the process. It’s also a response to the court, which created a streamlined docket which allows us to be there.”

With Maryland still a national leader in the number of foreclosures, MVLS teamed with Civil Justice, Inc. to offer brief advice to homeowners facing the loss of their homes. The clinics are held at the Office of Administrative Hearings in Hunt Valley.

“Attorneys are there to answer questions about the foreclosure process,” said Lonni Summers, MVLS’ managing attorney for consumer law and foreclosure prevention. “At the clinics, clients can get referrals to lawyers if they need full representation. We want to expand into a phone service because a lot of people can’t get to Hunt Valley.”

Stem the tide

MVLS also helps people with debt problems.

In addition to advising pro se debtors on the ins and outs of bankruptcy in free, half-hour consultations with experienced pro bono bankruptcy attorneys at the Debtor Assistance Project, MVLS is working to stem the tide of people filing chapter 7 and chapter 13 bankruptcies.

“We’re engaging bankruptcy attorneys to help people avoid bankruptcy,” Francis said. “Some clients file for bankruptcy just to get creditors to stop harassing them. But, in many cases, they’re collection-proof. It’s mostly seniors on Social Security who are emotionally traumatized by abusive creditor calls to the seniors and sometimes their neighbors. Until an attorney gets involved, these bad practices won’t stop.”

MVLS has partnered with the Pro Bono Resource Center to staff tax sale clinics every spring to help the large number of homeowners at risk of losing their homes in a tax sale.

“People can lose their house over, say, a very small unpaid water bill,” Francis said. “The implications are so stark. You can lose the equity in your home. And it’s mainly seniors.”

Preying on seniors

Another growing consumer problem is identity theft, especially with seniors.

“Seniors generally aren’t required to file tax returns, but they’re the most vulnerable,” Francis said. “Scammers make dedicated efforts to go after people 78 and older, when scientific studies show that cognitive ability drops off. We’re looking now at expanding how to help this population.”

With the growing number of consumer issues for low-income people, the need for volunteer lawyers is more acute.

“We’ve stepped into areas where there aren’t a lot of private attorneys, like ground rent and tax sales,” Summers said. “We get up to speed and then train attorneys who can then take the cases.”

By agreeing to take pro bono cases, private attorneys can learn new skills. “They can learn efficient tools they can use in their practice,” Sullivan added.

How to help

Sabrina Kane, a 2012 University of Baltimore School of Law graduate and a solo practitioner in Catonsville, said her volunteer work at MVLS has helped her learn skills and expand the scope of her practice.

“I took a difficult bankruptcy case from MVLS that had lots of interesting, fun issues,” she said. “I got to do a title search and go through probate records—stuff I had never done before. I leaned on the MVLS staff when I needed it.”

Kane also took some litigation cases, which helped her learn what she wanted to do in her private practice—as well as what she doesn’t want to do.

“In reality, I’m a very public interest person,” Kane admitted. “I enjoy helping people who otherwise couldn’t afford a lawyer. MVLS is a great way to hook up with clients if your practice isn’t very busy or you want to try something different.”

Attorneys interested in signing up as a volunteer can go here. Or call Susan Francis at 443-451-4084.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is [email protected].