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Reena K. Shah, executive director of the MSBA-backed Maryland Access to Justice Commission, said that “attorneys matter,” especially when legal assistance is needed most by those who can afford it the least. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Newsmakers: Access to Justice Commission’s Reena Shah

Reena Shah’s professional focus has shifted from international development to public policy and legal aid, but a common thread has run through her career: an emphasis on increasing human rights.

Now the executive director of the revived, independent Access to Justice Commission, Shah said the commission’s first year will revolve around raising public awareness of the need for legal aid in civil matters, as well as reaching out into the community to identify barriers to the legal system and advocating for reforms.

The new commission — chaired by attorney Ward B. Coe III of Gallagher, Evelius & Jones LLP in Baltimore and including members such as Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, leaders of major legal services organizations, representatives from the Maryland State Bar Association and the deans of both local law schools, among others — will be funded in its first year by the state Judiciary, Shah said.

The plan is not for the new commission to dismantle after a year, however. Shah, the commission’s sole paid employee, said the group has already begun working on obtaining funding to allow it to continue to operate for years to come.

Housed at the University of Baltimore School of Law, the commission will work on “big picture, systemic issues” that stand in the way of justice, rather than focusing solely on increasing access to the courts, Shah said in an interview with The Daily Record earlier this week. A lightly edited transcript of the interview follows.

How did you first become involved in issues of access to justice and legal aid?

I went to the Peace Corps for three years — I was an environmental studies major in college, so I went out and did conservation work overseas. That led me to thinking about international development work, and that’s really what my first career was. I came back from the Peace Corps and did a public policy degree, and that’s when I got really interested in working on the Hill and working on bigger policy issues.

Once I got to law school, I wanted to continue doing the work that I had done overseas in international development, which was a lot of human rights work. While I was in law school, I ended up going to South Africa. I was working at a human rights litigation center there; I took classes in human rights, and then, post-graduation, I was trying to find an organization that would do human rights work domestically, because I wanted to stop traveling. I ended up identifying [Maryland] Legal Aid as that organization. I was a housing attorney there; I started in the housing and consumer law unit. The year that I started, I think, Legal Aid adopted a human rights framework. Once they had adopted the framework, I really got involved with, what do we do with implementation? They ended up getting money to have a whole project on human rights, and I ended up being the first director of it. … Having that background, when I saw this position, it seemed like a good fit for me, having already worked on these issues.

Is encouraging the broader community to think of access to justice as a human rights issue rather than simply a legal issue a goal of the commission?

What civil legal services works on is helping people keep their housing, helping people get benefits, whether it’s food stamps or whether it’s your check for Medicaid or disability or whatever, helping people in divorce or custody situations where you might be losing your child. These are things that are so important. When we think of human rights generally in the United States, we think of civil rights or political rights — you can’t lose your liberty. If you lose your liberty, you have a lawyer; you have a public defender. But when you’re about to lose your child, or when you’re about to lose your housing, those are so critical, and think of the populations that are affected by this — people who are struggling economically, people who might have lost their jobs, people whose levels of education might not be as high. You’re going into this very complicated legal system, and you’re pretty much there by yourself, fending for your rights. It’s absolutely a human rights issue. You’re talking about basic human needs that are at stake.

What are your top priorities for the commission’s first year?

We want to do, in the foundational year, public awareness. … We are going to be working with Voices for Civil Justice, which is a national organization that supports legal aid groups in all states, we’re going to be working with them to develop a campaign by which we can try to get more news stories about civil legal services and make it more prominent.

The other thing we’re going to do, and this is going to be more in the fall — there’s this new court rule on unbundled legal services. So what that means is that people can hire an attorney to do very discrete tasks. Right now, if you hire an attorney, the attorney has to take on the whole case — you enter into a lawyer/client relationship, and that can be prohibitive because of the cost. People might not be able to afford to pay an attorney to handle their whole case, but they could pay an attorney to handle a motion or handle one hearing or something like that. This court rule actually allows attorneys to take on discrete parts of cases. We want to publicize this; we want let attorneys know this exists, and then we want to build a bar around it.

The other part is really about this outreach into the community, and that’s going to be an ongoing effort, thinking about how do we listen to groups that have the most access issues — people with disabilities, people with language access issues, people who are in communities that feel that they can’t trust the justice system or they can’t access it in any way — we really want to be out there listening and develop the rest of our agenda based on that.

What are the benefits to the commission being an independent entity rather than falling under the umbrella of the Judiciary?

The Judiciary can only take certain positions. They can’t be out front in legislative initiatives, for example. And so what we see in the new commission, because it’s independent, we can certainly take bolder stances. I think generally the commission feels very positive and optimistic that independence gives us great leeway to work broader, to take bolder stances and to really push for reform — legislative reform and change.

What would a successful first year look like for the commission?

If we are able to get the word out, if we are successful in our public awareness campaign, if we have broad and more stakeholders and broad and more partners to tackle these issues, that would be success. If we have increased the amount of media attention to civil legal aid, if we have increased stories, if we have more people understanding the importance of civil legal aid in their lives, that would be success.

When I talk about pushing the courts to be able to collect data that is significant to these issues, it’s real, because the data is not there. A lot of this stuff is done on paper. It’s hard to even put it together. The power of knowing, well, this is actually what’s happening to the people, and then, ‘Hey, let’s layer race on top of that,’ and ‘Hey, let’s layer disability on top of that,’ and ‘Let’s look at who are the people who are really left out of the system.’ We know anecdotally, perhaps, but there’s power in setting those baselines, and then being able to use those numbers to push for change, to say, ‘This is what we’ve specifically found, What are we going to do about it?’

 

Reena Shah, 39

Education:

B.A. in environmental studies, The George Washington University

M.P.A. in development studies and international relations, Princeton University

J.D., University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

 

Career highlights:

Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, Inc.

Director, Human Rights Project

Staff Attorney, Housing and Consumer Law Unit

 

DLA Piper/ Southern Africa Litigation Center, Washington, DC & South Africa

New Perimeter Fellow

 

Office of U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski

Foreign Affairs Fellow through Women’s Research and Education Institute

 

Peace Corps, Nepal                                                                                                               

Soil Conservation Extension Volunteer in Baglung District Soil Conservation Office

 

Community involvement:

Maryland Lawyers Alliance for Race Equity and Human Rights

University of Maryland Alumni Board

Women’s Law Center Board

Maryland State Bar Association Leadership Academy