Third annual recipients of Access to Justice Awards named
The recipients of the third annual Maryland Access to Justice Awards were honored at the Maryland Judicial Conference in May.
“The Access to Justice awards recognize individuals, programs and entities that improve the ability of all Marylanders to access the courts or to get legal help in civil legal matters so they can benefit from the rights, protections, services and opportunities that the law provides,” said retired Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Irma S. Raker, chair of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission.
Judge of the Year
The commission has announced Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has been named Judge of the Year. In fact, the award has been renamed in his honor, the Robert M. Bell Judge of the Year, “to emphasize our appreciation for the incalculable ways in which he has furthered our mission,” Judge Raker explained.
Judge Bell, who will step down in July when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70, is among few judges to have served on every level of Maryland’s state courts. “His extensive and diverse judicial experiences have informed his approach and strengthened his commitment to access to justice,” Judge Raker said. “During his seventeen-year tenure as chief judge, he has implemented countless justice-based programs and organizations within the Maryland Judiciary. These include the Maryland Access to Justice Commission itself, the Office of Problem Solving Courts, the Court of Appeals Standing Committee on Pro Bono, and the Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office. With Chief Judge Bell at the helm of the judicial branch, Maryland has become a national leader in access to justice.”
Judicial Branch Excellence
Clerk of the Court of Special Appeals Leslie Gradet and the staff of the Office of the Clerk, Court of Special Appeals, have received the Judicial Branch Excellence Award. Under Gradet’s leadership, the office last year created “A Guide for Self Representation,” a step-by-step booklet detailing how to appeal a case. It includes common forms, a sample brief, and a sample record extract. The Office of the Clerk provides the Guide for free and has distributed it statewide, including to libraries and prisons.
Outstanding Program of the Year
Community Mediation Maryland and Maryland’s seventeen Community Mediation Centers received the Outstanding Program of the Year Award. Community Mediation Maryland is a private non-profit organization that provides support to community mediation programs statewide. Created in 2000, Community Mediation Maryland works to make citizens aware of, and provide them access to, affordable, high quality, community mediation services. CMM works side by side with organizations including MACRO, the District Court Alternative Dispute Resolution program, the Department of Family Administration, state’s attorneys’ offices, and correctional facilities. An asset to the courts, CMM and the Community Mediation Centers provide reliable day-of-trial and pre-trial mediation. Because of CMM, Maryland has programs that benefit vulnerable individuals including veterans, truant youths, drug users, and prisoners. They have refined the “inclusive mediation” approach, an easy to use method which is optimal for community volunteer mediators. By allowing individuals to participate in their own solution, CMM and the centers it supports provide justice in the eyes of litigants, where it counts most, and encourages trust in the legal system.
Executive Branch Award
The Homeowners Preserving Equity (HOPE) Initiative of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has received the Executive Branch Award for 2013. Established in 2007 by Gov. Martin O’Malley to address Maryland’s foreclosure and housing problems, the HOPE Initiative targets four areas: counseling, mediation, the Attorneys General Mortgage Servicing Settlement, and fraud avoidance. Through HOPE, the DHCD funds and trains a statewide network of nonprofits that provide foreclosure prevention assistance to Marylanders. Since the initiative began in 2007, counselors have helped more than 44,960 distressed homeowners, of which 13,405 avoided foreclosure. DHCD manages the Maryland HOPE website and the Maryland HOPE Hotline, which provide ongoing housing counseling and resources to homeowners facing foreclosure.
The Maryland Access to Justice Commission was created in 2008 by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell to improve and expand all people’s access to the state’s civil justice system. A coalition of representatives from Maryland courts, executive branch agencies, legislators, attorneys, social services and faith groups, and legal service providers, the commission recommends changes to improve the ability of all Marylanders to use the courts effectively and to obtain legal help when they need it. It primarily focuses on expanding access to the state’s civil justice system, which includes landlord-tenant cases, divorce, child custody issues, small claims and debt collection, domestic violence, and other non-criminal matters.