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Small fee, huge help

Monday, March 15, 2010; A14

THROUGH NO FAULT of its own, the Maryland Legal Services Corp. continues to suffer serious budget shortfalls that imperil the ability of legal aid lawyers to help poverty-stricken clients secure food stamps, housing assistance and unemployment benefits.

For the past 30 years, Maryland LSC has relied on interest from lawyer trust accounts for the bulk of its funding; in turn, it distributes the money to roughly 35 legal aid organizations throughout the state. In 2008, the group received some $6.7 million from this source, but because of historically low interest rates Maryland LSC projects that income will shrink to about $2 million in the coming year -- a 70 percent decrease over 18 months. At the same time, some legal aid providers in the state report a 60 percent increase in the number of clients seeking help. While criminal defendants are guaranteed lawyers, those with civil issues do not have the same right and either must pay for their own lawyers or, if unable to do so, rely on legal aid organizations.

This shortfall must be addressed immediately to provide poor Marylanders much-needed assistance. The Senate has passed a bill authorizing modest increases in filing fees on civil cases to benefit the legal aid groups; the House will soon take up the bill and should follow suit.

The legislation calls for a $10 increase in fees for civil cases filed in Maryland's District Court -- the equivalent of a small claims court. Total fees for cases involving claims of $5,000 or less would go up to $30; fees for cases involving claims as high as $30,000 would increase to $40. In Maryland's Circuit Court, which handles commercial cases involving larger sums, the proposed increase of $45 per case would bring filing fees to $150. Filing fees are waived for indigent defendants who either represent themselves or have legal aid counsel.

These relatively small increases could bring in as much as $9 million per year for legal aid and could make a world of difference to struggling families throughout the state.

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