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)