Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : April 2006

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 PRO BONO Profile:  

Predatory Practice

The signs are visible almost everywhere you go: "You can own your dream house! Bad credit, no credit, no problem! Call today!" This is the sub-prime mortgage lending market, where mortgages generally are made to people with impaired or limited credit, or high debt relative to income. This market has grown from $35 billion in the mid 1990s to over $160 billion today. While expanded access to credit for a different market of credit-worthy consumers is good, there are abuses.

One of these abuses is known as "flipping". Flipping occurs when someone purchases a piece of property cheaply and then immediately sells it for a highly-inflated price. People are lured in with the prospect of owning their own home; the scammer helps secure a loan at the inflated price, then walks away, leaving the new homeowners with a loan on a house that is not worth what they owe. Too often the buyer can't afford to pay the inflated loan, and loses the house in foreclosure. Also, the victim frequently does not qualify for free legal aid, but nor does he or she make enough to pay market rate for legal services. Where do these people go to get the quality legal help they need?

One organization that offers help is Civil Justice, Inc. According to Executive Director Philip R. Robinson, Esq., "Civil Justice is a network of lawyers who believe that affordable, high-quality services can be provided through a cooperative network of attorneys, working together, who are willing to share their ideas, experiences and know-how to better serve all members of the public."

Prospective clients can receive free referrals to attorneys who will help. While there is no charge for the referrals to the network of lawyers within the Civil Justice system, the attorney work is not necessarily free. Most of the attorneys work on a reduced-fee basis, but the details are worked out on a case-by-case basis between client and attorney.

One of the difficulties is the lack of attorneys in the field. This happens due to the inability of solo practitioners and small firms to risk investigating whether consumer law could become viable for them due to the potential initial loss. This does not have to be the case. "From an attorney's point of view, the practice of consumer law can become a fee-generating practice area," notes Robinson.

"Fee-shifting statutes in many consumer protection laws allow the Court to award reasonable attorney's fees to consumers who have been victimized," he adds. "So, accepting what may appear to be just a pro bono consumer law case could actually result in fees depending on the outcome in court. In this way the legislature has added an incentive for attorneys doing what appears to just be a pro bono matter."

By working through the Civil Justice network, attorneys have an opportunity to get involved by co-counseling with Civil Justice and taking advantage of the experience of the other members of the network. The members can offer legal experience that covers issues across the consumer law arena. One member remarks that it was like instantly becoming a part of a much larger firm – that if you have a question, you could find someone with whom you could talk. In addition, there are national affiliations that provide a wealth of resources to assist attorneys in their cases. Being a member of the Network gives attorneys access to the National Consumer Law Center manuals which cover the gamut of consumer law issues.

The concept behind Civil Justice, Inc., actually began in the mid-1990s as an affiliated program in conjunction with the University Of Maryland School of Law and the Law School Consortium Project (LSCP). The LSCP was interested in increasing the availability of legal services to low- and moderate-income individuals by promoting programs that helped to support community solo and small-firm lawyers through training, mentoring, and providing other support. Civil Justice, Inc. remains an affiliated program today and continues to work closely with the University Of Maryland School Of Law to help promote public interest legal careers.

Civil Justice, Inc., is just one of a network of legal services programs in the state with which the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC) works to match lawyers with pro bono opportunities . To volunteer in any of a number of civil practice areas, call PBRC at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274, or e-mail jmoseley@probonomd.org. To contact Civil Justice, Inc., directly, call (410) 706-0174. Please tell them you read the article about them in the Bar Bulletin.

Jon Moseley is Volunteer Services Coordinator for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: April 2006

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