Legal Aid Bureau Celebrates 95 Years
In the last 95 years,
Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau has helped close to two million poor people with
their legal needs. This remarkable legal services agency has provided free civil
legal assistance to low-income Marylanders for close to a century and has served
as a strong advocate for systemic change to protect the rights of the poor and
improve their welfare. This year, Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) is
commemorating its 95th year,
celebrating a century of milestones.
IN 95 YEARS,
Legal Aid's caseload
has never waned,
nor has the need of
the indigent for
civil legal services.
Across nine decades, LAB
has grown from a small Baltimore City legal services agency helping several
hundred immigrants and poor people with their legal problems to a comprehensive
statewide legal services network that assists the indigent, homeless, disabled,
children, residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, migrant
workers and others with their civil legal needs. Today, LAB is a statewide
private, non-profit law firm with 13 offices. Its 266 attorneys, paralegals and
other staff provide free civil legal services to 50,000+ indigent Marylanders a
organization now offers an array of services to help income-eligible vulnerable
populations with a myriad of civil legal problems ranging from family and
domestic matters, housing, health care, homelessness and public benefits to
consumer and financial issues. LAB provides legal advice and representation at
hearings and trials, including children in CINA (Child in Need of Assistance)
proceedings, and handles referrals. In a broader sense, it champions the cause
of the poor, bringing equity and stability to society.
LAB has given almost a
century of outstanding service to Maryland's poor and served as a strong and
effective advocate championing the rights of the indigent. "Legal Aid has played
a vanguard role in protecting and advocating for the rights of low-income
people," states LAB Executive Director Wilhelm H. Joseph, Jr. "In doing so, its
work has contributed to making real the idea of equal justice for all, although
to a less than desirable degree than the need requires."
In 95 years, Legal Aid's
caseload has never waned, nor has the need of the indigent for civil legal
services, which is staggering. Although LAB serves over 50,000 a year, more than
500,000 are eligible under its financial guidelines. LAB is only able to help
about 20 percent of those needing it. Too many Marylanders are still denied
access to justice.
At the beginning of the
wealthy people in this country could afford attorneys while the poor were forced
to turn to the Charity Organization Society for legal assistance on a pro bono
basis. In the early 1900s, American cities began forming societies to provide
legal assistance to the indigent. In 1911, Federated Charities founded the Legal
Aid Bureau in Baltimore and this fledgling agency's part-time staff handled 234
cases its first year. For the next two decades, LAB functioned as a Federated
Charities program, relying on private contributions for funding.
In 1929, Legal Aid
became an independent, private nonprofit corporation with a budget of $4,433.
When the Depression hit in 1932, the legal needs of the poor soared and Legal
Aid was given free office space by Baltimore City's government. Its financial
support increased, as did its staff, with the addition of attorneys from the
federal government's Works Progress Administration. LAB's caseload rose to 3,200
clients that year.
Legal Aid's budget grew
to $12,000 by the late '30s, with an annual caseload of 5,000. It began to
expand its mission, compiling statistics to illustrate the indigent's legal
dilemmas. Thus, LAB's role as an advocate for the poor was born. It started
recommending remedial legislation to protect the indigent's civil rights, but,
at the time, it lacked the resources and clout to realize meaningful change.
Legal Aid served its
in 1948, and its annual caseload by then totaled 7,000, including many returning
World War II veterans. In 1953, Legal Aid moved to Baltimore City's new People's
Court Building. The '60s brought the civil rights movement, with Legal Aid
juggling a $64,000 annual budget and a staff of six lawyers to handle 9,000
clients a year.
In the '70s, Legal Aid
employed 34 staff attorneys and, with a $1.7 million budget, opened neighborhood
offices in the city, then in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford Counties. It
launched Baltimore's first public defender program, defending people accused of
crimes until Maryland created the state Office of the Public Defender in 1972.
To increase the effectiveness and efficiency of its legal work, LAB also
pioneered a paralegal program.
Two major milestones
arrived in 1974. The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was created, and Charles
H. Dorsey became Executive Director of Legal Aid. Under Dorsey's leadership, LAB
expanded to Prince George's County, Cumberland and Salisbury, serving the urban
and rural poor populations, with an annual budget of $12.5 million. Its
attorneys started taking on larger cases, often using class-action litigation,
and LAB championed causes like the migrant farm workers, the state's steel
industry practice of preventing women and minorities from getting higher-paying
jobs and mentally-disabled people. It won several landmark decisions.
The '80s hit LAB hard
with seven straight budgets devoid of federal LSC funding as President Ronald
Reagan sought its elimination. Legal Aid ultimately lost $1.2 million, forcing
staff cuts. Thus, Maryland's General Assembly created the Maryland Legal
Services Corporation (MLSC) to provide funding for Legal Aid and pro bono
provider organizations, which in turn formed the Interest of Lawyers' Trust
Account (IOLTA) program to collect interest paid on lawyer trust accounts to
fund legal service organizations.
LSC's funding was
slashed from $400 million to $278 million in 1995 and LAB lost $1.4 million, a
34 percent drop. Congress also placed major restrictions on what LSC-funded
lawyers could do, prohibiting class-actions, barring the collection of
attorneys' fees, rulemaking, lobbying, litigating on behalf of prisoners and
representation of drug-related public housing evictions and certain categories
In 1996, LAB lost a hero
when Dorsey suddenly died. However, the Bureau was very fortunate when Wilhelm
H. Joseph, Jr., succeeded Dorsey as Executive Director. Under Joseph's
leadership, LAB funding has gone from $7 to $20 million a year and expanded its
special services, through structured formal units, to include: Pro Bono Unit;
Pro Se Unit; MLAN; Affordable Housing Preservation; Farm Workers; Administrative
Law; Domestic Law; CINA; Housing/Consumer; Elderly/Nursing Home/Assisted Living;
60+ Program; 60+ Legal Program; Education; Employment; Public Benefits; Family
Law Hotline; Senior Law Hotline; and the Child Support Abell Program in
"In the last 10 years,
we have strengthened partnerships with the legislature, private funding
entities, the private bar and the union (including finalizing a collective
bargaining agreement)," exclaims Joseph. "In totality, that's given us the
ability to present ourselves to our clientele as a source of stable, competent
and zealous services."
LAB has come far under
Joseph's leadership. "He has put us on firm financial footing with the Equal
Justice Council, which he formed in 1997," states Warren S. Oliveri, Jr.,
President of LAB's Board of Directors, "and with his work at the General
Assembly getting civil court filing fees passed to fund legal services. That's
his legacy, along with the return of many former Legal Aid attorneys (mostly
because of higher salaries we now pay) and a better spirit generally throughout
On Saturday, October 14,
LAB celebrated its 95th anniversary
with a Homecoming Gala, inviting all Legal Aid alumni to the Reginald F. Lewis
Museum of African American History and Culture for a special reunion. More than
400 people attended the Gala, enjoying a reception, dinner, dancing and a tour
of the Museum's many exhibits. "This was the first time Legal Aid congregated
its staff and volunteers over the years to share news and reminisce about the
past," states Joe Surkiewicz, LAB Director of Communications.
One of the highlights of
the evening was a brief program depicting LAB's distinguished history and
honoring the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau's special Champions of Justice: Benjamin
R. Civiletti, Alice Jews, George W. McManus Jr., Judge Mary Ellen T. Rinehardt,
Margaret Smith, and Judge Dennis M. Sweeney.
"Our work constitutes a
continual cycle of confronting challenges and executing (them) appropriately,"
asserts Joseph. "Celebration is an oft-overlooked, yet very important, phase of
that cycle. It's our way of saying thank you to all who have given, to encourage
those still giving and to shed light on hope for those who will be giving in the
future." Joseph is already looking ahead to LAB's 100th anniversary,
which "will really be something to talk about!"