Maryland Access to Justice Commission

Listening events, preliminary findings highlight ongoing work to improve access to courts

Man speakingMaryland’s courts are listening. For the past year, members of the public have been talking directly to judges and other officials during a series of open listening events, which culminated in April in the historic courtroom of the state’s highest court in Annapolis. During these meetings, members of a special Judiciary commission have been listening to citizens to hear how to improve services and access to Maryland’s courts.

Woman speakingThe April 2010 meeting was the last of a year-long series of listening events held throughout the state by the Maryland Access to Justice Commission. The Commission, chaired by retired Court of Appeals Judge Irma S. Raker, is a coalition of representatives from Maryland courts, executive branch agencies, legislators, attorneys, social services and faith groups, and legal service providers. Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn of the District Court of Maryland is the vice-chair.

Each year, the state’s courts handle more than two million cases. The Commission is working to enhance the quality of justice for people who encounter barriers when they are dealing with the courts, including the challenges faced by people who represent themselves in court. Other barriers include language or literacy issues, challenges due to varying physical abilities, not being able to afford to hire legal help or take time off work to attend to legal issues, or a lack of understanding of the civil justice system in Maryland and the resources available.

Computer keyboard with Access key instead of enter key“In order to identify areas for improvement, we have been listening to members of the public to hear directly from them what it feels like to come to court, or to seek legal assistance,” said Judge Raker. “The Commission’s goal is to improve the ability of all Marylanders to use the courts effectively and to obtain legal help when they need it.”

More than 400 advocacy organizations were invited to attend the listening events and to bring clients with them who have a story to tell that can inform the Commission’s work.

The Commission was created in 2008 by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell to develop, coordinate and implement policy initiatives to expand access to the state’s civil justice system. The Commission’s primary focus includes landlord-tenant cases, divorce, child custody issues, small claims and debt collection, domestic violence and other non-criminal case types.

Lack of funding blocks access for many Marylanders, interim report notes

Late last fall, a year after its launch, the Maryland Access to Justice Commission issued an interim report citing insufficient funding for legal services for the poor, among other barriers, which leaves countless Marylanders without meaningful access to the courts or the help they need to resolve their legal problems.

The report made 62 substantive recommendations that reflect three general areas that will require collaborative problem-solving by the Judiciary and its justice system partners:

Maryland, like many states, faces a critical shortage of funding for civil legal services, due, in part, to the current economic downturn. In its report, the Commission examines the range of funding options used by other states to address this critical need, and makes some recommendations for strategies that might be adopted in Maryland to stabilize and support the civil legal services delivery system. The report explains, “Before we can provide civil justice to all Marylanders, we
need to ensure that individuals can obtain legal representation when they need it. Adequate funding will help ensure Maryland has a robust civil legal services delivery system.” (Interim Report, p. 2).

According to the report, Marylanders are appearing without counsel in the courts in record numbers. The Commission makes a number of recommendations to enhance the ability of the self-represented to navigate the court system. Other recommendations address the barriers faced by critical populations in Maryland, or are designed to enhance the public understanding of the civil justice system and legal services.

“Many Marylanders are forfeiting critical rights because they do not have access to representation or because they face critical barriers in exercising their rights,” said Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn of the District Court of Maryland, vice chair of the Commission.

Online extras

Maryland Access to Justice Commission’s interim report:

CameraInterviews from Access to Justice listening events: (video)