Maryland’s chief provider of grants to groups offering free legal aid to low-income residents faces a nearly $7 million pandemic-driven shortfall, the executive director of the Maryland Legal Services Corp. said Thursday.
To recover the losses, MLSC will try to tap into the state’s more than $1 billion share of the federal government’s national COVID-19 recovery package, Susan M. Erlichman added.
‘”We are staring at a deficit,” she said. “We have our work cut out for us.”
Erlichman spoke before a task force formed to develop ways to ensure equal access to justice for the indigent and minorities who desperately need legal assistance in securing welfare benefits, avoiding eviction or staving off debt collectors amid the economic havoc wrought by the deadly virus. Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh created and chairs the task force, on which Erlichman co-leads the committee on funding for civil legal aid.
Erlichman told the attorney general’s panel she expects fierce intrastate competition among entities for Maryland’s share of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding. MLSC and its member groups will lobby state and local leaders and mount a public information campaign whose message will be that legal aid organizations are “essential front line providers” for the indigent during the pandemic, Erlichman said.
“Time is of the essence,” she added.
Erlichman attributed MLSC’s shortfall to the closing of the state’s courts between March and June and the Federal Reserve Board’s reduction in the federal interest rate to nearly zero percent in March to stanch virus-related market disruption.
The court closings meant that MLSC did not receive the $2.3 million it expected via a surcharge on civil filings earmarked for the corporation. The reduced interest rate, which stands at between zero and .25%, cost the corporation about $4.5 million, as MLSC collects funds through the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, Erlichman said.
Noting that indigent Marylanders have been especially hard hit, task force member Guy E. Flynn said he and other attorneys in private practice must form “an army of lawyers who can fill this need” for free legal assistance during the pandemic.
“Law firms can really step up now and play a big role,” added Flynn, a partner at DLA Piper LLP in Baltimore and co-chair of the task force’s Pro Bono & Reduced Fee Legal Services Committee. Flynn also called for retired lawyers and judges to provide legal assistance during the health emergency.
Frosh, a former private attorney, also urged Maryland lawyers to take more pro bono cases in light of the pandemic, which he said has provided “a call to action.”
“There is a huge need for lawyers to provide that representation,” Frosh added. “The need is overwhelming, it’s immediate.”
Frosh said his 41-member COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force will meet as a body twice more before issuing recommendations to the Maryland General Assembly in December, a month before the next legislative session begins. The task force’s 10 committees will meet much more often and recommend solutions more regularly, he added.
Topics covered by the committees include consumer protection; economic and food security; housing; health; policy and race equity; and surviving abuse, neglect and exploitation.