Due to the struggling economy and other financial difficulties, studies show that as many as 80% of low-income Maryland residents involved in civil lawsuits choose to represent themselves in court, a decision that often means losing their case. In response, a state task force has recommended that Maryland increase its legal aid programs by more than $2 million each year and even assign free lawyers to certain family law cases.
While many people likely know that the sixth Amendment to the Constitution gives criminal defendants the right to a lawyer at public expense, few realize that this right does not extend to civil cases. The state of Maryland is typically no different: in all but a few types of cases, people involved in a civil trial must represent themselves in court if they cannot afford an attorney. And with even the most affordable lawyers charging around $80 per hour, in addition to an array of other legal costs and filing fees, many people are forced to go without an attorney. Some turn instead to resources like the Family Law Self Help Center in Annapolis, a legal clinic based out of the law library that offers free walk-in legal advice for a number of civil litigants. Unfortunately, these services seem to make little difference: the task force cited at least one study in their report that found people were 6.5 times more likely to succeed in a critical civil case if they had representation.
The group, officially known as the Task Force to Study Implementing a Civil Right to Counsel in Maryland, was composed of a number of judges, attorneys, delegates and state senators. The task force has been meeting since December 2013 to discuss providing legal representation to low-income civil litigants. In a report submitted to Governor Martin O’Malley and the Maryland General Assembly on October 1, the group stated that Marylanders who qualify for legal aid and are involved in child custody and civil domestic violence cases should have a right to a lawyer at public expense.
While the task force did not specify an income level for legal aid, one nonprofit organization offering civil legal aid, Maryland Legal Aid, stipulates that applicants much fall within 125% of the federal poverty guidelines, meaning litigants must earn less than $14,588 as an individual or less than $29,813 for a family of four. Meanwhile, most other programs offering low-income legal help require an individual income of less than $27,390 a year, or less than $52,674 for a family of four.
Currently, a bill which outlines the task force’s recommendations and is sponsored by Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, is scheduled to be introduced to the state’s legislature at the start of the next session, January 14. While some lawmakers are expected to balk at the project costs, which are planned to reach more than $4.8 million per year to fund both domestic violence and custody cases, some are pointing out that the improved programs could save money in the long run: for example, trials would be shorter and more efficient, and the state could save on social services, such as homeless shelters, that low-income litigants might otherwise need over the course of their cases.
Studies show that family law cases, which include child custody and domestic violence matters, make up more than one-third of all cases filed in Maryland courts. According to an attorney at Maryland Legal Aid, the majority of low-income clients facing civil cases are involved in child custody cases, an unsurprising observation given the prevalence of this type of legal situation: studies show that 82% of women separating from their partners in the United States want to be the custodial parent. Legal experts say that some of these cases may also be complicated by allegations of domestic violence, which require additional legal action, but would also be covered under the task force’s recommendations.
If approved by the state Senate, the extended legal representation and legal aid would likely begin in 2015. Until then, however, many Marylanders undergoing civil and family law cases remain without the legal representation they may need to protect their families and win their cases.