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Having survived pandemic, MLSC looks to the future

Legal services to help low-income Maryland residents avoid eviction are among those offered by the Maryland Legal Services Corporation. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

When courts closed for several months after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in Maryland, the legal aid system – and the funding that helps sustain it – also grinded to a halt.

The Maryland Legal Services Corporation, which funds 36 nonprofit organizations that provide civil legal aid to low-income Marylanders, faced an almost 50% income shortfall for the 2021 fiscal year, said Deb Seltzer, the MLSC’s newly appointed executive director.

“MLSC was certainly not immune to the impacts of the pandemic,” Seltzer said. “As the year went on, our financial projections got worse and worse.”

While MLSC was able to secure additional funding from the state twice over the past year and a half, the pandemic still presented challenges to the organization. Despite those challenges, though, Seltzer believes that there is a silver lining: The pandemic has allowed MLSC and other Maryland legal aid providers the necessary time to take a step back and really look at what their clients need and how best they can support them.

The MLSC’s two biggest funding resources were hit hard by the economic effects of the pandemic, and there is little indication that they will begin to recover quickly. The first, IOLTA, or Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts, is an escrow account where lawyers can keep clients’ funds held in trust for future use.

The interest earned on these funds is then typically sent to MLSC, but the Federal Reserve cut interest to zero in June 2020 and plans to keep rates at or hovering just above zero until the economy has fully recovered, drastically decreasing the amount sent to MLSC.

MLSC also relies on surcharges on certain court filings, and widespread court closures disrupted court filings, and thus another funding source.

In October 2020, Gov. Larry Hogan and Attorney General Brian E. Frosh approved $11.7 million in emergency funding to support housing security and other issues arising from the pandemic. In 2021, the General Assembly increased MLSC’s annual distribution from the Abandoned Property Fund and provided $3 million in one-time funding to support services for tenants facing eviction.

These funds, Seltzer said, helped MLSC meet its grant obligations for the year.

“We’re very grateful,” Seltzer said.

Most of MLSC’s grant obligations are allocated as general operating grants, which helps grantees keep their lights on.

Other MLSC grant programs include workforce legal services, which embeds legal service providers at job training and other workforce development sites, foreclosure prevention and eviction prevention. The MLSC also provides funding, along with the Maryland Judiciary’s Access to Justice department, to pay private attorneys reduced feeds to accept contested family law cases, which can take a long time and be difficult to find pro bono representation for.

Additionally, MLSC funds an internship program, which places University of Maryland Law School or University of Baltimore Law School students with one of MLSC’s grantees, and provides the intern with hands-on experience and the legal service provider with greater capacity to do more work.

When the pandemic forced workplaces to go remote, MLSC quickly adapted and began trying out new ways to collaborate with their grantees. The corporation, alongside the Access to Justice Commission, hosted weekly management calls with grantees, checking in to provide support in general nonprofit management, but also to help grantees assess how they were handling the need of their clients. These weekly meetings have transitioned to twice a month, but Seltzer said they will continue hosting them because it has “proven valuable for the participants.”

District Court Judge Sidney Butcher, chair of the MLSC’s Board of Directors, said he is excited to see where this increased collaboration will take the legal community. He has seen partnerships emerge across county lines and applauds legal service providers for being “on the front line,” meeting with the public to continue to provide necessary services.

“The ability to collaborate, to communicate, to work together to try to resolve and address some of these issues is really providing the foundation and infrastructure to try to tackle some of the unknown issues that we may be confronted with that we’re not even aware of right now,” Butcher said.

Identifying these unknown issues is a priority for MLSC. Even before the pandemic, legal service providers could not meet the totally civil legal need for a variety of reasons, one being that the need is so great.

But MLSC and other legal service providers are hoping this will change, starting with eviction cases.

Last session, the Maryland General Assembly made Maryland the second state in the country with eviction right to counsel. However, a bill to fund this counsel did not pass, and the assembly created a task force, including Deb Seltzer, to identify sources of funding. The task force’s first report is due Jan. 1, 2022.