Earlier this month, the National Law Journal reported on the desperate state of legal aid across the country, calling it a “perfect storm” of all things grim. Legal aid for millions of indigent people around the nation comes from a variety of sources that, for a variety of reasons, drop in funding just as demand for those services rises. As more people lose their jobs and their homes in an economic downturn that just entered its fourth painful year, the need for lawyers to represent them in court has spiked. Legal aid isn’t unique in this dilemma – this same tragedy is being played out by charities, as well as state and federal agencies, across the nation.
As lawyers ourselves, though, we ought to be particularly sympathetic to the needs of those seeking justice in a court of law, but who are unable to get it because they simply can’t afford an attorney. In Maryland, tens of thousands of impoverished Maryland citizens count on the services of Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau every year, and that number has risen by volumes since the recent economic downturn. Founded in 1911 to provide free legal services to the poor, the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau has grown to have offices in nearly every county in the state, and its services are in constant demand. Much of Maryland Legal Aid’s work focuses on serving the legal needs of the elderly, helping women and children in abusive relationships, representing families who face eviction from their homes and assisting low-income workers deal with problems in their workplaces.
The National Law Journal points out that it isn’t just budget cuts that have made the situation so bleak for legal aid. A major part of legal-aid funding comes from what is known as Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts, or IOLTA. This is a portion of the interest in certain state-run lawyer trust accounts that is set aside for legal-aid groups in those states. Given the record-low interest rates over the past few years, proceeds from IOLTA have dropped substantially. Combine that with budget cuts and a dramatic rise in the number of low-income people requiring legal aid since the economic downturn, and it is clear legal aid is hit with a triple whammy.
As lawyers we pride ourselves in working toward the ideal of “justice for all.” We need to be mindful of the role we play in that regard. For more information about Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau Inc., call 410-951-7680 or go to www.mdlab.org.