State task force to study civil right to counsel for Marylanders

Over the next year, a special task force will study the feasibility of providing a right to legal counsel for Marylanders engaged in certain types of civil disputes. The legislation that set up the task force was passed during the 2013 General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley April 9.

The task force will study whether low-income Marylanders should have the right to counsel at public expense in basic human needs civil cases, such as those involving shelter, sustenance, safety, health, or child custody. The task force will compare reported need versus current legal aid resources, and study how a right to civil counsel might be implemented and how it might be funded. The issues to be considered include what burdens might be placed on the court system and other public resources if a civil right to counsel was implemented in the state, and what benefits and cost-savings to the court system and public resources might result from the implementation.

The task force has been approved for one year, Oct. 1, 2013-Sept. 30, 2014. By the end of its yearlong assignment, the task force will report its findings and recommendations to the Governor, Chief Judge, President of the Senate, Speaker of the House, Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, House Appropriations Committee and House Judiciary Committee.

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“A guiding principle of the Maryland Judiciary is to provide fuller access to justice for all,” Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell said. “Therefore, it is vitally important to thoroughly and impartially investigate both the concept and the practical implications of a civil right to counsel as part of that access.”

The task force will have 12 members – three each appointed from the Senate of Maryland, House of Delegates, and Maryland Judiciary, and by the Governor. Members will not be paid for their participation. The Chief Judge will designate the chair, and the task force will be staffed by the Maryland Access to Justice Commission.

“We are very grateful to the legislature and the governor for continuing the dialogue about civil right to counsel in Maryland,” said retired Court of Appeals Judge Irma S. Raker, who chairs the Maryland Access to Justice Commission. In 2011, the commission issued a report, “Implementing a Civil Right to Counsel in Maryland,” which was the first in the country to envision how the state could administer such a right, and how much that plan could cost. As part of its investigation, the task force will study and analyze that report.

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, which includes landlord-tenant cases, divorce, child custody issues, small claims and debt collection, domestic violence, and other non-criminal matters.

Want to learn more?
Check out the legislation creating the task force: