The need for improving access to legal aid has not diminished since the Maryland Judiciary’s Access to Justice Commission disbanded just over a year ago, advocates and legislators said at the launch of a new, independent Access to Justice Commission on Monday.
The new commission will aim to expand access to the courts for those who cannot afford legal representation in civil cases, as well as to increase Marylanders’ awareness of their legal rights and drum up support within the legal and business communities for organizations that provide pro bono or low-cost legal services. It will be led by executive director Reena Shah and chairman Ward B. Coe III, a partner with Gallagher, Evelius & Jones LLP in Baltimore, which hosted Monday’s kickoff event.
Coe and Shah said the group’s first priorities will include advocating for legislation that supports a right to counsel in civil matters, as well as conducting community outreach to identify barriers to justice and come up with solutions to expand civil legal aid in the state. That legal assistance could come in a variety of forms, ranging from representation by an attorney to self-help centers to free legal clinics.
“A lack of representation can lead directly to triggering the cycle of poverty and reinforcing it,” Coe said. “These are very critical times, and now is the time to take action.”
Members of the new commission include leaders of several legal services organizations, including the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, Maryland Legal Aid, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, Public Justice Center and Homeless Persons Representation Project.
The commission’s ranks also include the deans of both Maryland-based law schools, several private practice attorneys, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and Pamela C. Ortiz, director of the Judiciary’s Access to Justice Department, which was created to put into action initiatives proposed by the original commission during its work from 2008 to 2014.
At the new commission’s launch Monday, dozens of private bar attorneys, legal services providers and current and former members of the Judiciary gathered to celebrate the reestablished group.
Speaking to the attendees, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said the commission’s objective echoes and responds to the chants of “no justice, no peace” that were repeated by protesters after the death last year of Freddie Gray from injuries he sustained while in police custody.
“If you do not have justice, you will have the absence of peace,” Cummings said. “Our society is moving more and more toward two societies — it’s already there, really. I’m not just talking about those who have financial resources, but also those who have legal resources, and those who do not.”
Cummings and several other officials highlighted recent efforts to protect recipients of structured settlements, such as Gray, from being exploited if they decide to sell their settlements. Those efforts include a proposed bill in the General Assembly that would prohibit buyers of structured settlements from purchasing more than 25 percent of the outstanding funds owed to the settlement’s original recipient.
“It’s all about representation,” said Del. Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore. “People get taken advantage of because they didn’t have a lawyer or financial advisor.”
“The problem is one in which people are twice victimized,” Frosh added. “Most of them are lead paint victims, folks who are almost by definition cognitively impaired.”
For members of marginalized communities, Frosh said, not having ready access to legal representation also means they may not be able to get convictions for minor crimes expunged from their records, in part because they might not know that those offenses are eligible for expungement in the first place.
“It’s like trying to swim with an anchor around your neck,” he said. “These people are saddled with a burden that is very hard for them to carry.”