Cumberland Times-News

April 20, 2013

Legal services receives help from lawmakers

General Assembly bills provide funding for civil cases

Matthew Bieniek
Cumberland Times-News

— CUMBERLAND — Funding relief provided this session by the General Assembly to the Maryland Legal Services Corp. is welcome, but only limits the impact of other cuts to local legal services operations, said Marcia Conrad, the executive director of the Allegany Law Foundation Inc.

With the help of local contract attorneys and those donating services, along with funding from the state attorney general’s office, the foundation is doing more with less.

“The Maryland Legal Services Corporation has been cut 5 percent each of the past two years,” Conrad said. Local offices receiving corporation funds have been directed to cut their budgets by an equal amount. And that 5 percent cut continues into the 2014 fiscal year.

“Things are looking pretty grim,” Conrad said. It’s been hard to keep up with a growing demand for services, Conrad said. Yet, the Allegany Law Foundation has managed to keep services going, despite growing demand on almost all fronts.

“We’re meeting the needs of many more clients,” despite the cuts, Conrad said. Conrad works at the office three days a week and her assistant is full time. A substantial amount of the funding available goes to contract attorneys, who handle a variety of cases for the foundation.

To stem further cuts, the General Assembly passed two bills to help fund legal services throughout the state. House Bill 8383, signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley last week, extended surcharges on civil cases designated to go to legal services.

“We’re pleased about that,” Conrad said.

Those surcharges would have ended this year without passage of the legislation. Senate Bill 809, also passed but not yet signed, added to the amount designated to the abandoned property fund that the state comptroller would send to legal services. That amount would go from the current $500,000 to $1 million in fiscal 2014, to $1.5 million in fiscal 2015 and to $2 million in fiscal 2016.  

Conrad credits money from settlements obtained by Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler with providing major help.

Gansler recently awarded part of those funds, $200,000, to the foundation to help families facing foreclosure. The money will help the foundation to continue a series of workshops, and work with private attorneys to provide representation in bankruptcies and foreclosure mediation cases, Conrad said.

Services provided by the foundation go far beyond foreclosure cases, Conrad said, and include domestic and family law, as well as other cases.

Legal services in Maryland are also funded by interest from lawyers’ trust accounts, but because of low interest rates, those funds are drying up.

In 1997, Allegany Law Foundation Inc. was organized by the Bar Association of Allegany County to provide civil legal services to senior and low-income residents of Allegany County. The purpose was to supplement the legal services provided by the Western Maryland Legal Aid Office through local private bar pro bono assistance and staff support, information provided by the foundation stated.

Contact Matthew Bieniek at mbieniek@times-news.com.