Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : August 2006

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 PRO BONO Profile:  

Fighting the Good Fight – Still

"Justice delayed is justice denied," said William E. Gladstone, one-time Prime Minister of England, and certainly this is the rallying cry behind Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau, Inc. Since its beginning in 1911, Legal Aid has been fighting for equal justice for all. The organization was established as a private, non-profit law firm dedicated to providing free civil legal services to low-income clients across the state. And in the words of current Executive Director Wilhelm H. Joseph, Jr., Legal Aid is still working to "help level the playing field of fairness between the powerful, including vendors, landlords, the state, employers and others in their dealing with lesser-equipped individuals and families."

The Legal Aid Bureau serves its clients from 13 offices across the state, and their funding base is as just as widespread. The agency is funded in part by the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (and the national Legal Services Corporation), the State of Maryland's Department of Human Resources and Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office (MACRO), local county governments and Agencies on Aging, and the Administrative Office of the Courts. In addition, there are nearly 1,000 contributions from foundations, firms and individuals from all over the state.

Although the Bureau is restricted to civil issues alone, the cases cover the range of the legal arena: employment, public benefits, families, child advocacy, housing, education, etc. In the 95 years of its existence, Legal Aid has represented clients in such diverse issues as assuring access to health and disability benefits, preventing clients from becoming homeless, protecting the interests of vulnerable children, families and the elderly, aggressively advocating for migrant clients and those with limited English proficiency, and fighting for earned employment benefits.

Consider this: in 2005 alone, more than 47,000 people were served by the agency statewide. This is a drop in the bucket considering that it represents only about 20 percent of the requests the agency receives every year from people who qualify to receive service. And these cases are just the tip of the proverbial ice berg. This does not include those asking for help who do not meet the strict federal income guidelines. Each year the number of cases presenting increase and the gap between the needs and the available services grows wider.

This is the point where volunteers offer a tremendous service to the community by collaborating with their not-for-profit colleagues. Cases of this nature tend to be more complex and too labor-intensive, draining the agency's already-limited resources. What better way for Legal Aid to achieve its mission "(t)o provide high-quality legal services to Maryland's poor through a mix of services and to bring about the changes poor people want in the systems that affect them" than by involving community volunteers in the needed work?

One such case involved a housing suit against the City of Baltimore. An apartment complex in West Baltimore was in the process of being torn down and new, more-expensive housing was scheduled to be put up in its place. The apartments had previously been Section 8 housing, and rent on the new apartments was going to be too expensive for the old tenants to afford. When the case was brought to Legal Aid, the housing project had no provisions to accommodate the former tenants. John B. Ibister, a volunteer attorney with the firm of Tydings & Rosenberg, LLP, was familiar with the Bureau's work through his involvement on the Equal Justice Council. Isbister decided to get involved, and his pro bono work was instrumental in the suit and getting the city to discuss provisions in the new housing complex.

This is how it is accomplished. Caring volunteers representing firms both large and small add their resources to those of the legal-services agencies in their community, and people receive the legal services they have no other means of acquiring. Their lives are improved and, as a direct result, our communities are made better for us all.

Support the legal service agencies in your community. Add your resources to the fight.

Jon Moseley is Volunteer Services Coordinator for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland. For more information on the Legal Aid Bureau or the other legal-service volunteer opportunities in Maryland, contact jon Moseley at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: August 2006

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