Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) and other top legal leaders issued a call to action for Maryland attorneys Thursday, urging them to take up pro bono service over the next year.
At a Thursday morning press conference, Frosh said most Marylanders with civil court cases lacked legal support even before the COVID-19 pandemic. He likened having to navigate civil court without legal representation to “playing a high stakes poker game where you don’t know the rules.”
Frosh and other speakers at the event, including Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, said that about 80% of Marylanders didn’t have legal representation in civil court prior to the pandemic.
“Here in Maryland, four out of five persons who need it do not have legal representation,” Barbera said. “We need to work on that.”
Frosh said Maryland attorneys should take up at least one pro bono case, or dedicate a certain amount of hours to pro bono service, over the next year.
The call to action is one of the key recommendations from Frosh’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force, which he created last summer to help Marylanders navigate the sprawling and complex civil legal system.
Maryland Access to Justice Commission Executive Director Reena K. Shah, who served as a co-chair of that task force, said expecting Marylanders to go through a civil legal case by themselves is akin to asking someone to diagnose and treat themselves without help from a doctor.
Without legal representation in the civil court process, Shah warned that Marylanders could be at risk of losing their homes, losing custody of their children, losing out on unemployment benefits and more.
“The most common solution to help people when they are confronted with the civil justice system is getting them legal representation so they can understand and vindicate their rights, and have a fair shake at justice,” Shah said. “What we have now is anything but fair.”
Shah added that the state’s Pro Bono Resource Center (PBRC), the pro bono arm of the Maryland State Bar Association, is helping to implement the call to action by connecting attorneys with pro bono organizations across the state via its website. According to the PBRC website, all of Maryland’s pro bono service providers are taking part in the call to action.
“The dam is about to break, and we need the help of all attorneys in Maryland,” she said.
Maryland State Bar Association President Natalie McSherry said that nearly 40% of lawyers in the state already perform pro bono service, and she is confident that lawyers will step up their pro bono service in response to the state’s call to action. She said Marylanders face “grave” legal challenges in the wake of the pandemic.
“We can be the difference in ensuring that this pandemic recovery does not disproportionately harm the most vulnerable among us, including people of color, disabled people, domestic violence survivors and others on the margins of society who were already finding themselves ensnared in the legal civil justice system at disproportionate rates, even before the pandemic,” McSherry said.
According to the MSBA website, attorneys should focus their pro bono work on the areas where need is greatest, including housing, public benefits or family law. MSBA member Cameron Williams, who previously served in the PBRC’s Consumer Protection Clinic, appeared in a pre-recorded video at Thursday’s press conference to urge fellow attorneys to volunteer.
“It felt really good to be part of a bigger mission of helping people create a sustainable path towards meeting financial obligations when their lives take an unexpected turn, one like we’ve experienced last year like a once in a generation pandemic,” Williams said.
Access to justice has been a significant topic in Maryland throughout the pandemic, including in the General Assembly. Lawmakers passed an effort to expand tenants’ access to legal counsel in eviction cases during the state’s 2021 legislative session, but a separate bill that would’ve raised certain court surcharges and fees to pay for that enhanced access to counsel failed to pass before the session ended in April.