Legislation that increases funding for legal services, reduces health inequities, and improved access to unemployment benefits were among the successes of a justice task force led by Maryland’s attorney general.
Although the work of the Access to Justice Task Force officially concluded in January with the release of their recommendations, the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, which worked in partnership with the task force, stressed the work that still needs to be done during a press conference on Wednesday.
“The pandemic’s threat to our financial and economic health is far from over,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, D, said during the press conference, which Capital News Service viewed.
Reena Shah, the executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, stated that although many of the 60 total recommendations the task force had were for the Legislature and were therefore implemented during the session, some of them were directed elsewhere and the commission will continue to address them.
The overarching recommendation for the Access to Justice Commission, Shah stated, is to ensure that all Marylanders have “meaningful access to the civil justice system.”
One of the ways the Access to Justice Commission aims to achieve that goal is by increasing access to legal assistance.
Although legislation passed this session that went toward achieving that goal, Shah said that there was no funding mechanism attached to the bill.
“We will be pursuing funding sources and helping with that entire effort,” Shah said.
In addition, the commission will be issuing a “call to action” for lawyers to take on more cases pro bono, and will be working to eliminate any barriers that prevent a lawyer from doing so.
Shah also emphasized the need for public access to critical information as well as civil justice data.
“What we found through the task force work is that there were a lot of people who did not know where to go to get the information they needed,” Shah stated.
To combat public information issues, Shah announced several projects that the Access To Justice Commission has released or will in the coming months, including a Life and Health Planning Handbook that will be distributed to hospitals and other organizations to provide legal information to people making important health and life decisions.
The Access To Justice Commission will also be partnering with Maryland’s 2-1-1 help line.
“We really want to bolster the capacity for 211 as they are a known entity that people can call to figure out where they can get help. We really need to integrate the civil legal component of that into 2-1-1,” Shah said.
A website, Debt Collection Maryland, was also released by the Commission recently.
The website puts information related to consumer debt in plain language and provides a step-by-step guide for individuals being sued for small consumer debts.
The commission also produced a “Civil Justice for All Story Map,” which allows people to examine data on civil justice issues like evictions or debt, as it relates to COVID-19, and they can break it down by county in Maryland.
Retired Judge Andre Davis, who was a U.S. Circuit Court judge and former Baltimore City solicitor, highlighted HB1002, an emergency bill that passed which enhances the Maryland Easy Enrollment Law, making it easier for people who file for unemployment benefits to receive health insurance.
Davis also addressed the task force’s legislative failures, saying they were “disappointed” when bill such as HB31, which would have increased court filing fees imposed on landlords during eviction cases, as well as legislation that eliminates body attachments, or arrest warrants, for people involved in small claims cases, did not pass through the General Assembly.
Del. Sandy Bartlett, D-Anne Arundel, stated during the press conference that the clock ran out on some things state lawmakers wanted to pass.
“It’s gonna pass next year,” Davis said, referring to HB31.
Frosh stated that he and the Access to Justice Commission are going to work with state lawmakers to keep bills that address affordable housing and consumer benefits a priority for the 2022 General Assembly session.