Harriet RobinsonReviving Judicare

Revitalized Program Helps Improve Access to Justice in Family Court
By Harriet Robinson, Maryland
Legal Services Corporation

A program to help pay for legal help for families in need has been resurrected to help people as shown in this recent case:

A single mother was fighting to get custody of her two children but didn’t have the funds to hire an attorney. She had never married the father, and he was subject to a protective order and incarceration for violence during the relationship. The children had witnessed the domestic violence and required therapy. The father was represented by an attorney, and filed for joint physical and legal custody or, alternatively, open and reasonable visitation. The mother was afraid of him, and although she was a good witness when she was prepared, she really needed the help of an attorney to keep her focused on the proper issues when she was on the stand. With funds from the newly revived Judicare program, a private, reduced-fee attorney was hired to help this mother get custody of her two children. The attorney was able to convince the court that joint legal or physical custody was not proper or in the best interests of the children in this case, and that supervised visitation was appropriate, given that the children had not seen their father in three years, coupled with their witnessing the domestic violence and the therapy needed as a result. The court ordered one-day-a-week supervised visitation with a review by the court in six months.

Although this is a fairly routine case for a family law attorney, a self-represented litigant would very likely get lost navigating the court process and have a lot of trouble achieving these results. Without proper representation, this complex case could also place an undue burden on members of the bench and our state’s entire judicial system.

2 People talking“There is a critical need to assure that low-income litigants have appropriate representation in divorce, custody, visitation and other contested family law matters,” said Susan Erlichman, executive director of the Maryland Legal Services Corporation. To answer that need, the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC), in partnership with the Administrative Offi ce of the Courts (AOC), has revived the Judicare grant program that was so successful in the 1970s and 1980s.

Judicare provides compensation for private attorneys who accept Judicare cases in contested family law matters at the rate of $80 per hour. The cap is $1,600 for 20 hours of work. Judicare will pay an additional $80 an hour, up to an additional $800 ($2,400 total cap), for every hour over 25 hours that the attorney spends on the case (thus fi ve hours must be pro bono). Judicare attorneys are guaranteed compensation, support of litigation expenses, and mentoring support if needed.

This updated Judicare program, begun in January 2008 with funding from MLSC and the AOC, “presents a wonderful opportunity for family courts, local bar associations, pro bono committees, and legal services providers to work together to help fill the gap of unrepresented low-income clients,” said Connie Kratovil-Lavelle, executive director of the Department of Family Administration, AOC. The current Judicare program is in the ‘pilot’ stage. The AOC is evaluating the pilot project (through June 2009) with the help of researchers at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and Bowie State University. MLSC and the AOC hope to expand Judicare services to all jurisdictions in the future.

Since 1999, through a project initiated by MLSC and AOC, private attorneys throughout the state have provided services to and represented low-income persons in complex child custody cases at significantly reduced rates.* The Judicare Family Law Pilot Project is an extension of these services to litigants in any contested family law matter. In FY 2008, 277 private attorneys handled 538 contested custody and other family law cases throughout the state for reduced fees.

With the revival of Judicare, the family courts, local bar associations, pro bono committees, and legal services providers are partnering to make a significant contribution to access to justice for low-income family law litigants.

* A complementary component of the Child Custody Project is operated by the Legal Aid Bureau through staff attorneys in various county offices.

Harriet Robinson is deputy director of the Maryland Legal Services Corporation. The Corporation was established by the Maryland General Assembly in 1982 to receive and distribute funds to nonprofit organizations that provide civil legal assistance to low-income persons.

Access to lawyers for contested family law cases is critical for litigants to achieve just outcomes, and is equally important for the judicial system and society as a whole.

Recent reports by the Maryland State Bar Association and the Maryland Judiciary document the plight of selfrepresented family litigants, unmet legal needs of low-income persons in the state and the past success of efforts by lawyers paid reduced fees to serve low-income persons who otherwise would be unrepresented.”

- Final Report and Recommendations on the Potential Use of Private Lawyers, Michael Millemann, University of Maryland School of Law for Maryland State Bar Association Section Council on Delivery of Legal Services and the Administrative Offi ce of the Courts, May 2007; Clearing a Path to Justice: A Report of the Maryland Judiciary Work Group on Self-Representation in the Maryland Courts, Maryland Judiciary, August 2007.

CollageThere are six legal services programs administering Judicare grants:

These programs work with the local courts, bar and social services agencies to identify clients with contested family law matters and private attorneys to handle Judicare referrals. They screen the clients, recruit attorneys, document the disposition of cases and handle compensation.