OCEAN CITY — Maryland’s legal community is preparing for the seismic changes to landlord-tenant cases that will come with the impending arrival of access to counsel in evictions.
The statewide program is set to launch in the coming years after Maryland lawmakers passed legislation in the 2022 General Assembly session to fund legal representation for low-income renters facing eviction.
In some parts of the state, variations on an access to counsel program are already underway. Baltimore County, for example, offers day-of assistance to tenants in need of legal guidance.
“Initially it has been a little bit difficult, but in the long run, it actually works out better for both parties because there is representation, there is assistance,” Baltimore County District Court Judge Michael W. Siri said Thursday at a panel discussion on the topic.
Siri and two other District Court judges — Danielle M. Mosley, of Anne Arundel County, and Bryon S. Bereano, of Prince George’s County — addressed a packed room of lawyers for their panel on changes to landlord-tenant laws at the Maryland State Bar Association’s annual legal summit.
The access to counsel program aims to level the playing field between landlords, who typically have some form of legal representation in housing court, and tenants, who do not have lawyers the majority of the time.
But it also has other goals, Siri said, including making rent court operate more smoothly. Some jurisdictions handle hundreds or even thousands of eviction cases per week.
“What we found now is that because you have attorneys representing tenants, the landlords are better prepared, they’re doing a better job of properly submitting complaints,” Siri said. “So it actually has made it a little bit more efficient.”
Jessica Quincosa, executive director of Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County, agreed that having lawyers represent tenants can make the process simpler for landlords, too. Community Legal Services currently offers landlord-tenant services in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.
“They can just send the person over to us and we’ll guide them through the next steps, which I think is really beneficial,” Quincosa said. “It frees up some of their time, too.”
Maryland Legal Services Corporation will administer the access to counsel program by distributing funding to legal services providers, such as Community Legal Services, at the local level.
Deb Seltzer, MLSC’s executive director, said it is exciting to see lawyers and judges rally around the ambitious new program.
“At first there are definitely going to be kinks to work out,” Seltzer said. “We will have to work out what works best at both a statewide level but also what works best in each county.”
Lawyers present at Thursday’s panel said adding legal representation for tenants will improve a process that is often challenging for both parties.
Jane Santoni, a lawyer at Santoni, Vocci & Ortega who works on behalf of tenants, said that adding lawyers will force rent court and evictions to move more slowly — and that’s a good thing.
“This may be the difference between somebody having a roof over their head, their children, or not,” Santoni said. “So a lawyer can make all the difference in the world.”
MLSC is set to hold training for lawyers who will represent tenants through the access to counsel program on Sept. 30.
Quincosa emphasized that having buy-in from judges and from other lawyers will be critical to the program’s success.
“I think the challenges will be there, but I don’t think they’re insurmountable,” she said. “It’s just being flexible, working with the bench, working with your stakeholders to make sure everybody feels heard.”