Every October since 2009, the American Bar Association recognizes the vital role pro bono lawyers play in the legal services delivery system during the National Celebration of Pro Bono week, which officially begins Oct. 22. In Maryland, many of the 35 legal services programs celebrate pro bono the entire month through volunteer trainings, legal clinics and volunteer recognition events. These activities honor the commitment of volunteer lawyers but also highlight the gap in affordable access to attorneys for civil legal matters. Because, with few exceptions, there is no right to counsel in civil cases, most low-income individuals with civil disputes must navigate a complex judicial system on their own. These cases often involve fundamental issues such as maintaining child custody or avoiding loss of their home.
While we can generally agree people are best served when they go to court represented by an attorney, for many Marylanders, retaining an attorney is out of reach financially. When people are unable to afford an attorney, they face potentially devastating legal consequences, not to mention the inefficiencies self-represented litigants create for our court system.
Data regarding the number of low-income people who go to court unrepresented illustrates the serious representation gap. According to the Report on the Task Force to Study Implementing a Civil Right to Counsel in Maryland, published in October 2014:
- There is one legal services lawyer for every 1,918 poor people, compared to one lawyer for every 159 members of the general population
- Legal services organizations currently meet just about 20-25 percent of the need
- 8-out-of-10 low-income Marylanders end up representing themselves in civil lawsuits
- The former Maryland Access to Justice Commission estimated in its 2010 report that about 340,000 Marylanders are unrepresented in state courts each year
Thankfully, the private bar in Maryland is engaged in and committed to pro bono. The Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, the largest pro bono legal services provider in Maryland, recently reported that in its fiscal 2017, 665 volunteer attorneys closed more than 3,200 pro bono cases, providing legal services conservatively valued at $4.6 million. Although many lawyers support pro bono through MVLS and others, more needs to be done.
2 new rules
The Maryland Rules Committee adopted two new rules in 2016 that expand opportunities for more attorneys to help those facing legal disputes without representation. These rules are consistent with previous rules highlighting the important role for attorneys in providing pro bono services. Maryland Rule 19-306.1, Pro Bono Public Service, already states that each barred attorney in Maryland is expected to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono per year. As they have not received significant attention, we believe it’s important to alert the bar to this expansion of the pro bono rules.
MD Rule 19-504, Pro Bono Legal Services, clarified that retired, inactive members of the Maryland bar are authorized to practice as pro bono attorneys as long as they comply with Rule 19-605(a)(2). A retired attorney may remain on inactive status and does not have to seek any special admission from the court to provide pro bono representation. Under 19-605(a)(2), the Rules Committee notes that retired attorneys do not have to pay into the Client Protection Fund as long as the attorney was not placed on permanent retired status, under MD Rule 19-740, as a result of an action by bar counsel to permanently retire the attorney from the practice of law, and the attorney’s practice is limited to providing pro bono services with no compensation. A retired attorney merely needs to contact a legal services program about accepting a pro bono case or volunteering at a clinic.
MD Rule 19-215, Special Authorization to Practice, permits out-of-state barred attorneys to seek admission to the Maryland bar for the limited purposes of doing pro bono work. The process to be admitted is fairly simple: The attorney provides three documents – proof of graduation from a law school, proof of good standing from an admitted state bar, and a certification from the Maryland legal services provider that the candidate will be providing only pro bono services. The attorney files these documents with the clerk of the Court of Appeals along with a $10 filing fee and the court makes the admission for the limited purpose of doing pro bono. These attorneys also do not have to pay the Client Protection Fund fees.
We support the Rules Committee’s actions to expand the available pool of volunteer attorneys and encourage our colleagues to participate in pro bono, not only to give back to our less fortunate communities but also to assist our courts in the timely processing and disposition of cases. It is our hope that these new rules encourage more attorneys to volunteer with legal services programs in Maryland.
Editorial Advisory Board member Susan Francis is the deputy director of the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.
EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS
James B. Astrachan, Chair
James K. Archibald
John Bainbridge Jr.
Wesley D. Blakeslee
Arthur F. Fergenson
C. William Michaels
H. Mark Stichel
Ferrier R. Stillman
The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the Board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the Bench, Bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, majority views and signed rebuttals will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.