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Dispatch | November, 22 2021

A2J Dispatch – November 2021 Issue

The November Issue

In this month’s issue of the A2J Dispatch, we explore how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing financial issues for low-income families and why having a lawyer is important to ensuring equity and fairness in civil debt collection lawsuits, where almost 90% of cases end in a default judgment against the defendant, with fewer than 10% of defendants having legal representation. 

This continues the work from the A2JC Covid-19 Taskforce Report, where we outlined how responses to the COVID-19 pandemic should be designed to help address disparities in access and outcomes that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The Biden Administration’s recently released 2021 Access to Justice in the Age of COVID-19 Roundtable Report also shows us that across the board the numbers are clear, access to meaningful counsel and legal assistance, in everything from evictions and foreclosures cases to debt collection cases, is important to ensure the civil justice system works fairly and equitably for all. 

A2J Commission News

Chief Judge Getty Attends A2JC Meeting. The new chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals joins the Access to Justice Commission meeting to discuss ways in which the Commission and judiciary can work together to advance access to justice in Maryland.

A Key Recommendation from the AG’s A2JC Task Force Comes to Fruition. In the final Task Force Report, we recommended that the U.S. DOJ re-establish the Access to Justice Office. We thank our U.S. delegation for supporting this effort. On October 29, 2021, U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland announced the restoration of a standalone Office for Access to Justice within the Department of Justice (for more details, see DOJ Press Release of October 29, 2021). Attorney General Garland previewed that more is to come, because “[a]ccess to justice today may require different tools and initiatives and a different office structure than it did a decade ago.” On the same day, the DOJ also publicly released the Attorney General’s Report to the President Pursuant to the President’s Memorandum on Restoring the Department of Justice’s Access-to-Justice Function (dated September 15, 2021). In this Report, Attorney General Garland describes the results of the Justice Department’s extensive 120-day stakeholder review, that “surfaced significant gaps in equal access to justice and revealed inequities that have become exacerbated as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force. The Access to Counsel Task Force, which went into effect on October 1, 2021, continues at a fast clip to study and make recommendations on how best to implement HB18, the Access to Counsel in Evictions law, in Maryland. The Task Force has already made and taken action on two interim recommendations, due to their time-sensitivity and the urgency of the need: first, it sent a letter to Governor Hogan to invest $12M in federal funding to jump start the program; second, it recommended that MLSC deliver an RFP to assess the program. The Task Force continues to work through three committees, including the Funding Committee; the Implementation Committee; and the Outreach & Assessment Committee. A final report of the Task Force will be delivered to the Governor and the Legislature by January, 2022. 

Affordable Law Task Force. The Maryland State Bar Association and the Maryland Access to Justice Commission are partnering to launch The Affordable Law Task Force to address the access to justice needs of Marylanders of modest means. Many more Marylanders – of low and modest means – are interacting with the civil justice system in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Marylanders who can neither access free legal aid nor afford standard attorneys fees, legal representation is simply out of reach. The Task Force will seek to identify solutions to address this gaping need. 

A2J Stories

This month, we meet Cindy, an elderly Baltimore City resident, who received a summons to show up to court due to a debt that was owed to a bail bond company. While waiting for her turn before the judge, Cindy listened to the judge’s statements about what legal defenses defendants could and couldn’t raise and she quickly realized she needed a lawyer. Read Cindy’s full story here.

We know Cindy is one of many Marylanders facing civil legal issues related to consumer law. Individuals and families with debts that end up in collections are oftentimes mistakenly viewed as having made poor personal financial choices. In reality, and what the pandemic has taught us is that, debt can become difficult to manage for any household, especially when experiencing emergencies, surprise expenditures or reductions in income. 

Here are some other life situations that lead to consumer law issues in the civil justice system:

  • Use an emergency credit card to buy food and medication, after experiencing job loss;
  • Miss a few car note payments, after cutbacks at work led to reduced hours and pay;
  • Fall behind on student or personal loans payments, after an unexpected trip to the hospital led to new medical bills;
  • Owe a past debt for healthcare services that weren’t covered by an employee plan;
  • Unknowingly become responsible for a debt after serving as a cosigner on a loved one’s loan;
  • Incur additional expenses they thought they could cover but couldn’t because they unexpectedly had to retire early due to health concerns;
  • Inherit increased financial responsibility after the loss of a contributing household member.

Local A2J News

National A2J News

  • The Digital Divide. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused courts—previously slow to adopt new technology—to leap into prioritizing digital services. As legal aid and court services increase the use of online tools, there is a concern that people without access to technology and high-speed internet will be left behind. This gap, referred to as the “digital divide,” is the topic of the latest Talk Justice episode, entitled The Digital Divide and Legal Aid Access.
  • Legal Information. The PEW Charitable Trusts is partnering with Stanford University Law School and Suffolk University Law School to improve the availability, accessibility, and usability of online legal information and court forms. This work seeks to develop technology reforms that can help courts serve more people, and pair those changes with improvements to associated court processes in order to enhance people’s experiences and interactions with the legal system. The work asserts that clear information can help millions of Americans access the civil legal system. 
  • Giving. Donations for ABA Giving Day more than double previous year’s total and FL attorney Mike Freed raised $405K this year and a total of $1.9M over the last 5 years by running a marathon from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, FL to help support the North Florida Medical Legal Partnership, which helps pediatric patients and their families facing legal obstacles that often impede their health outcomes.