ANNAPOLIS – Maryland Legal Services Corp., the organization providing funding for civil legal services to low-income families, is facing a multitude of funding problems that together are jeopardizing their programs.
Revenues from its chief source of funding are sharply declining, there’s little money to supplement its budget from the General Assembly, and, finally, a U.S. Supreme Court decision could eliminate the funding altogether.
“It’s all combining to pose a grave threat to Maryland’s poor who need legal services,” said Janet Eveleth, spokeswoman for the Maryland State Bar Association.
Legal Services distributes money to providers of free legal advice on family issues such as divorce and child custody, landlord-tenant disputes and consumer rights.
Maryland spends about $60 million on the Public Defender’s Office, which handles criminal matters, said Legal Services’ Executive Director Robert Rhudy. “And almost nothing to provide legal assistance to people with civil problems.”
One civil legal advising organization, the Legal Aid Bureau, said it will try to cope with the funding shortages.
“We approach all the issues the same way we represent poor people – there are always barriers and hurdles, but we’ll do everything we can to make sure poor people don’t get fewer services,” said the bureau’s Executive Director Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr.
Rhudy said the bureau, one of his largest recipients, ordinarily receives about half of Legal Services’ funds.
“The (bureau) is the cornerstone of civil legal services in the state of Maryland. It should be the last place that is cut,” said Joe Surkiewicz, a bureau spokesman.
Legal Services receives the majority of its funding from what’s called the IOLTA program, in which the interest from lawyers’ client trust accounts is earmarked to help low-income residents solve their legal problems.
IOLTA, first established in Maryland, now operates in every state.
Legal Services received about $4.2 million from the accounts as part of its $7 million budget. But this year, it is expecting about $3 million, Rhudy said, largely because interest rates have fallen sharply.
Maryland’s judiciary is trying to help make up the shortfall.
When Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell turned in the judiciary’s budget request to the Legislature, he earmarked $1.2 million for civil legal services for the needy.
The money will cover the difference between what Legal Services received last year and the amount expected this year, Bell said.
However, the Maryland General Assembly is struggling to close an estimated $1.7 billion budget gap through fiscal 2004.
A Supreme Court decision will determine if Legal Services’ can receive money from the trust accounts at all.
The Washington Legal Foundation, a legal think tank, challenged the entire program in court, charging the interest earned from the accounts is private property.
“The government may not take people’s property without compensation,” said Richard Samp, a foundation lawyer.
Rhudy strongly criticized the foundation’s actions.
“It’s clear that it’s an effort to eliminate access to justice for people who can’t afford an attorney,” he said.
But regardless of IOLTA’s fate, Legal Services’ recipient organizations understood that funding was on its way down and perhaps, so were the services.
Beverly Mondin, spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Bar Foundation Pro Bono Program said if Legal Services cut its funding it will lead to a decline in services.
About 50 percent of the bar’s pro bono budget is money received from Legal Services, she said.
“I will simply put their phone number on my answering machine,” she said half-jokingly, “because people are in need.”