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Lawyers start training for Maryland’s access to counsel in evictions program

Maryland Legal Services Corporation took another step toward implementing statewide access to counsel in eviction cases last week with a large-scale training symposium for lawyers interested in representing tenants.

More than 100 lawyers gathered at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law on Friday for substantive legal training aimed at preparing attorneys for what promises to be a massive influx of housing cases in the coming years.

Legal services providers across Maryland are working to launch a statewide access to counsel program that will, when fully implemented in late 2025, ensure legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction. The process requires training lawyers to offer these services because tenants have long gone mostly unrepresented in housing court.

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Karen Wabeke, MLSC’s program manager for the access to counsel in evictions program, said the first training program was a success.

“We were thrilled with the turnout,” Wabeke said. “It was a mix of primarily the attorneys who will be going the work representing the tenants facing evictions. We also had some pro bono attorneys who will be volunteering their time doing that work.”

Lawmakers passed the access to counsel program in 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The original law made Maryland the second state in the nation to guarantee legal help to qualified renters, but did not identify a funding source for the program.

That changed this year when the program received $12 million from the state budget and lawmakers set aside another $14 million from the state’s abandoned property fund for the 2024 fiscal year.

MLSC is responsible for distributing state funding to legal services providers that will carry out the program. For this year, Wabeke said, the focus is on “Phase 1” jurisdictions that put up their own money to fund eviction defense, including Baltimore city and Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as several others, including a number on the Eastern Shore.

In those jurisdictions, MLSC has identified grant recipients that will implement the access to counsel program. Those recipients have begun hiring where necessary, Wabeke said.

“At least in these Phase 1 jurisdictions, there’s been significant hiring among our grantees,” she said. “The symposium and training on Friday (was) for a lot of those newer attorneys joining our grantees.”

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MLSC is also working with other organizations to launch a statewide coordinated intake system so that tenants in need of legal help can easily be connected with attorneys. Jurisdictions not included in Phase 1 will be the focus in the 2024 fiscal year, Wabeke said.

Melanie Torain, an attorney in private practice who attended Friday’s training, said the access to counsel program will be meaningful for tenants who have legal defenses but don’t know how to present them.

“It’s going to mean they might have better outcomes,” Torain said. “A lot of times they have defenses that are not articulated to a judge. I’m hoping to figure out how I can be involved in these cases.”

Heidi Kurniawan, a third-year law student at Carey Law who said she plans to pursue work in housing law, said she attended in hopes of learning skills she will be able to use as an attorney just starting out.

“I think it’s a really exciting time to be a student interested in housing and access to justice in general,” she said.