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Frosh seeks $22M for free legal services amid resurgent pandemic

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said the Maryland Court of Appeals’ erroneous ruling struck down a state agency’s valid determination that a convicted human trafficker must register because his victim was a child. (File photo)

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh sent a letter to the governor requesting $22 million in state funds to assist Marylanders in need of free legal representation in eviction, foreclosure and debt-collection proceedings. (File photo)

Maryland’s attorney general Wednesday called for $22 million in state funds to assist financially strapped Marylanders in need of free legal representation in eviction, foreclosure and debt-collection proceedings amid a resurgent pandemic that has already created widespread economic hardship.

Brian E. Frosh, in a letter to the governor, said the state’s infusion this year of nearly $12 million for civil litigation assistance — even when buoyed by $10 million in federal aid – is insufficient to meet the ballooning demand for legal help caused by the financial devastation wrought by the COVID-19 virus and efforts to stanch its spread.

Frosh said $20 million in additional funds for the Maryland Legal Services Corp., supplemented by $2 million in housing and financial counseling services, should be part of Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget request for fiscal year 2022, which begins July 1.

“Civil justice is a right, not a privilege,” Frosh wrote.

“It helps preserve the rule of law and ensure fairness and equity for all,” he added. “A robust civil legal justice system capable of meeting the needs of all Marylanders is essential for maintaining public health and economic vitality. In the wake of COVID-19’s devastation, it is also critical to our recovery.”

MLSC, which provides grants to groups that providing free legal aid, depends for much of its funding on the interest on lawyers’ trust accounts. But with interest rates hovering near 0%, MLSC has been strapped for funds at a time of unprecedented need for its services, Frosh said.

The attorney general acknowledged that the $22 million request for legal services might be a bit high amid other pressing demands for state assistance amid the pandemic, adding that he would “appreciate the opportunity” to discuss his request with the governor.

“In light of the current pressures on the state’s budget, we understand that the full amount of funding required for civil legal aid may not be possible,” Frosh wrote. “We must do everything we can to avoid, however, a catastrophic decline in civil legal aid at a time when so many Marylanders need it most.”

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday on the attorney general’s letter.

Frosh’s request emerged from meetings of the COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force he created in June to develop ways to enhance legal representation during the pandemic.

In his letter, Frosh said the state aid he seeks is a short-term solution to an endemic problem in which people who cannot afford legal counsel in civil cases must turn to MLSC, which is also financially strapped. He said aid for legal services should be a line-item in the annual gubernatorial budget requests presented to the General Assembly.

“To ensure the state fulfills this imperative to maintain a robust civil justice system for all, we must finally tackle head on the chronic, structural funding deficit in the civil legal aid community’s capacity to meet demand,” Frosh wrote.

“We must adopt an approach that enables us to increase capacity, build infrastructure, and scale systems and supports to safeguard this system for all Marylanders,” Frosh added. “In addition, as we have learned the hard way over these past months, we must also ensure better preparedness to meet the explosion of demand in times of crisis, like a prolonged global pandemic.”

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