Indie Soul Magazine Podcast: The Link Between Structural Racism, and the Justice System, Featuring Aja’ Mallory

In the third installment of how structural racism links with the justice system, MVLS’ Senior Staff Attorney, Aja’ Mallory was recently featured on the Indie Soul Magazine Podcast. This is an incredibly in-depth and insightful interview with an historical focus of how these systems were erected and how they continue to be a barrier in communities of color.

2024 MVLS Legislative Advocacy

This year, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service will be advocating for equitable laws by monitoring and participating in the General Assembly’s legislative activities. Two primary areas of focus for MVLS are housing stabilization and criminal record relief.

Some of the key bills we’re supporting are:

Transfer to Heir – Exemption from Prepayment Legislation.  MVLS clients who are fighting hard to save their family home are often kept from recording the necessary new deed because of delinquent property taxes, water bills or environmental citations.  This bill allows for deed transfers in certain situations where payment of taxes and municipal liens would not be required before the deed transfer takes place. Liens will remain on the property. This would allow for low-income residents in tangled title situations to avail themselves of the Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit, as well as critical repair programs, making it more likely that they will be able to stay in the home long term.  

Tax Sales Reform.  MVLS is supporting this bill which, among other items, would increase the amount a homeowner must be delinquent to be put into tax sale to $1,000, and would remove properties which only owe water and sewer bill liens from tax sale statewide.

Renters’ – MVLS is supporting two bills that increases the income and asset limits for the Renters’ Tax Credit.  This credit provides low income renters with a tax credit for the portion of their rent that goes towards property taxes.  The income and asset limits to qualify for this credit have not been increased in years so the time is overdue for increasing them.

Homeowners’ – MVLS is similar bills that increases the income and asset limits for the Homeowners’ Tax Credit.  

Expanding “Good Cause” Expungement MVLS is supporting legislation to provide judges with the ability to determine “good cause” grounds for expungement involving convictions.

Addressing In Re Abhishek – MVLS is also supporting legislation to address the recent court decision in In Re Abhishek, in which the court found unsatisfactorily completed sentences (including violations parole/probation) were ineligible for expungement.  Violations of probations can be for a variety of reasons, including many potentially poverty related, like missing your parole or probation meeting when your bus didn’t come or you didn’t have child care. The court’s ruling is overly broad and has a significantly negative impact on individuals who otherwise successfully completed their sentence.

Clean Slate – MVLS is collaborating with the Clean Slate Initiative to support a bill that would expand automatic expungement to include all cases eligible under current law. Automatic expungement is currently limited to non-convictions that occurred after October 1st, 2021.

2023 Annual Report: It’s All About Relationships

A Message from our Executive Director

I'm grateful for each of you who have joined our effort to provide free civil legal help, create strong community partnerships, and zealously advocate for equitable laws.

When reviewing this year’s annual report, what immediately jumps out to me is that MVLS was able to make major strides in removing barriers to justice because of the valuable relationships we have with our volunteers, community partners, clients, supporters and others.   

As you’ll read in the report, there are the numbers, which are always impressive, that are a clear indicator of the commitment made by our volunteers and staff to ensure that individuals have access to quality, free civil legal help.  Over 300 volunteers along with our staff attorneys, moved justice forward in over 3,200 cases. Each of those cases represents a person who s had better outcomes, who was better able to advocate for themselves and who had more empowerment in their own legal matter. Put simply, 3,256 lives were changed for the better because of the legal help we provided. 

While the numbers are impactful, it is when we dig a little bit deeper and share the stories of clients, community partners and supporters, that one can begin to really understand the strong and essential relationships that MVLS has been building for over 40 years. The task before us, ensuring a fair justice system, is daunting, and sometimes can be demoralizing when we are reminded of the long path to justice.  But the stories shared in our mission impact series illustrate the commitment MVLS has to developing and stewarding strong partnerships with our volunteers, clients, community partners and supporters, as we work collectively to ensure a just legal system. 

Click each image to read the full story behind each client, community partner, and donor featured here.

I got a call from Maryland Volunteer Lawyers. They had a match, an attorney for me. I will never forget that day. - Natushia Lewis-Smith, MVLS Client

MVLS Had an Attorney for MeI encourage you to watch this short video featuring MVLS’ client Natushia Lewis-Smith and her attorney, Curtis Cooper. While the legal outcome, of course, is of utmost importance, what I really love about sharing this story, is both the strong trust built between Ms. Lewis-Smith and Mr. Cooper, as well as the close connection between the volunteer and MVLS staff. That trust between Mr. Cooper and our team was built over many years, and continues to play a crucial role in the value he finds in serving as a MVLS volunteer. 

We See MVLS as the Gold StandardI had the tremendous pleasure of meeting Ms. Simon in 2017 and knew immediately that MVLS would be a better and more effective organization if we were able to partner with her. Thankfully, Ms. Simon saw the value of closing the gap to legal services in the communities she serves and trusted MVLS to begin building our partnership. And together, we began instilling legal knowledge and reducing barriers amongst older adults around Baltimore City and Baltimore County. Our partnership is built on trust, a shared vision and willingness to adapt to the needs of those experiencing financial and legal challenges. 

We set the gold standard annual report cover photo
Giving to MVLS was a small token of the huge impact on my sister and our family. - David Wade

A Token of Impact – After being engaged in our work at MVLS for over ten years, and being able to share in the incredible work being provided by our volunteers, and hearing so many inspiring stories of our clients, I’m rarely left speechless anymore by the generosity of spirit that comes to MVLS through so many connections.  But Lillian Hunter’s wish to leave MVLS a gift out of her modest estate to thank MVLS and her volunteer attorney did just that. We know our work changes lives for the better, to have such a tangible reminder of the meaningful role that we were able to have in Ms. Hunter’s life, it’s powerful and humbling. 

These three meaningful examples illustrate what MVLS is able to provide because of the relationships we have created with all of you. I’m grateful for each of you who have joined our effort to provide free civil legal help, create strong community partnerships, and zealously advocate for equitable laws – your names are listed in the volunteer and donor sections of the report as well!  As is reflected in this year’s annual report numbers, lists, and stories, we move forward our shared commitment to a fair justice system by working together. 

Thank you so much.

Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service Welcomes Three New Board Members to Help Champion Equal Access to Justice for All

BALTIMOREMaryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS), a statewide nonprofit offering free legal representation to low-income Marylanders, today announced the election of three new members – attorneys Brent A. Bolea, Lydia E. Lawless and Syma Ahmad Siddiqui – to its board of directors.

MVLS’ board is responsible for governance and directing the organization’s strategic plan to deliver life-changing pro bono legal services to Marylanders with limited income. Board members support the mission of MVLS by investing in the program and volunteering to support clients, staff and community partners.

“MVLS is thrilled to have Brent, Lydia and Syma joining our Board of Directors. As the board focuses on strategic planning and creating a DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) plan this year, we look forward to the insights that each of these new board members will bring to these important conversations.” Said MVLS Executive Director, Susan Francis. “The MVLS board provides critical oversight and guidance to the organization, and we look forward to working with each of our new members.”

Bolea is an assistant general counsel to BGE specializing in energy, environmental and administrative law and he is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Bolea graduated from the University of Baltimore School of Law and has been a part of MVLS’ fundraising committee for the past year.

“I chose to serve with MVLS because of the stellar reputation it has for doing an amazing job at providing critical legal services and for advocating for fairness, equity and justice for all,” Bolea said.

Lawless, a principal at Kramon & Graham, P.A., is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and formerly served as Maryland’s bar counsel. She is a graduate of the American University Washington College of Law and was named to The Daily Record’s 2021 Power 30 Law List. She joins the board with a strong belief in MVLS’ mission, sharing, “I believe deeply in the mission of MVLS and the idea that every attorney has an obligation to serve the public. I look forward to contributing to the important work that MVLS does to help ensure equal access to justice for all Marylanders.”

Syma Ahmad Siddiqui, Associate General Counsel, Office of General Counsel at the Johns Hopkins University, brings her expertise in counseling senior leaders on a broad spectrum of legal matters. She graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center and previously represented the U.S. Secretary of Labor in federal courts to enforce the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and federal labor regulations.

“I choose to serve with MVLS because I deeply believe in its mission to provide free civil legal services to clients with limited resources, to engage with our communities, and to advocate for equitable laws,” Siddiqui said.

About Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS)

Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) removes barriers to justice through free civil legal help, community engagement, and advocacy for equitable laws. The organization matches clients with volunteer lawyers, tax professionals and staff attorneys who represent them in a wide range of consumer finance, family and housing situations, including foreclosure, bankruptcy, divorce/custody, deed changes, as well as income tax disputes, estate planning, and criminal record relief. MVLS advocates for racial equity in Maryland’s legal system and works in concert with community partners to move toward a fair legal system that is free of injustice and equitably serves underrepresented Marylanders. For more information about MVLS, please visit


Media Contacts:
Sandy Arnette
Arnette Media
phone: 410-274-5975

Chandler Walters
Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS)
phone: 443-451-4095

MVLS featured in the Baltimore Banner, “Letters: On Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for volunteer lawyers and tax professionals”

Our incredible Legal Advocate, Antonia Wilson, penned a heartfelt piece for the Baltimore Banner, highlighting the amazing people and reasons we’re thankful this holiday season. Dive into the ethos of MVLS and discover why our volunteer attorneys, tax professionals, community partners, clients, donors, and every supporter – big or small – continue to be our heartbeat.

A Token of Impact

2023 Annual Report

When David Wade called MVLS, he dialed a different number than his sister once had. That’s because he wasn’t calling for legal help – he was calling to make a gift in her memory, and in honor of the volunteer attorney who helped her.   

David’s sister, Lillian Hunter, was a vital woman who rode a motorcycle, cared deeply for her pets, and loved her family. And like many clients, she called Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service during a heartbreaking time of her life.  

Living with a degenerative illness, Lillian experienced serious abuse at the hands of her husband who was also her primary caregiver, and she needed the marriage to end.  

Through MVLS, attorney Jason Morton took her case and, working closely with her brother, helped Lillian get a divorce and find safety in the remaining years of her life. Sadly, Lillian passed away in the spring of 2023.  

Before her death, David and his sister had discussed her passing, and what she wanted done with her modest estate. Lillian wanted to make gifts to the places that took care of her.  

Lillian Hunter
Lillian Hunter pictured over the years and with her siblings, courtesy of David Wade and family.

Giving to MVLS, David said, was “a small token of the huge impact that Jason had on my sister and our family. “MVLS took care of her in a big way when she was going through a really tough time.”  

Honoring Jason was an important part of their gift. “Anything legal can be quite complicated at times,” David explained, “but Jason was very personable, down to earth, and tried to make things as simple as he could.” 

“It would have been a real burden for us to have had to pay,” he acknowledged, adding “my sisters felt that God’s hand was involved in connecting him to our family.”

For Jason, an attorney at Salvatore & Morton and longtime MVLS volunteer, working on this case illuminated just how dedicated David was to his sister. “In my eyes, David is the hero of this story,” he said.   

A legacy gift to MVLS can provide free legal help for years to come. For more information about becoming a member of MVLS’ Legacy Society, visit our donation page or contact Katie Sutton, Director of Development, at and 443-451-4065 to discuss a planned gift.  

MVLS Had an Attorney for Me

2023 Annual Report

Natushia Lewis-Smith called MVLS because she needed help with her divorce.  

Family law cases like hers are the most common legal problem that drive people to seek help from MVLS. The legal system is extremely difficult to navigate, and family law clients often find themselves enmeshed in particularly emotionally and mentally devastating situations with everything about their future in turmoil. In these moments, it takes a special volunteer to accompany clients. 

Ms. Lewis-Smith was placed with one such volunteer, Curtis Cooper. She shared that she will never forget the day she learned she would have the support of an attorney.  

Watch Natushia and Curtis share their story in the video below:

Family law cases are increasing throughout the state of Maryland, and pro bono programs like MVLS continue to see huge numbers of family law clients like Ms. Lewis-Smith seeking help. The high demand means clients with family issues must often wait a long time – sometimes for more than 60 days – to get help. 

That staff attorney is Nancy Grimm who joined MVLS in November 2022 to lead the program. Nancy works closely with MVLS legal advocates who answer clients’ calls for assistance and a panel of family law attorneys who take cases. Having an attorney on staff is key to developing and cultivating a strong network of volunteers. In some instances, Nancy also works directly with clients as they wait for placement with a volunteer, providing advice about navigating the process or assisting them in preparing their case.  

In just one year, having an attorney on staff has allowed MVLS’ family law program to place or close 42% more cases in FY23.  

Many clients express fear and uncertainty when suddenly faced with a family law matter that requires representation. Their lives are upended, and they often feel they have nowhere to turn for help. The stakes couldn’t be higher. 

“…Clients need to know they are accepted, that they mean something, that their issues are important, and that they can trust their attorney.”

Good family law attorneys put clients at ease, quickly develop trust, and work with empathy.

It is such a relief for a client to know they are in good hands with their volunteer attorney.  Nancy described what that looks like in practice, commenting on Curtis and Natushia’s case: “Obviously Curtis has great abilities,” she said, “but it’s not just about that. Clients need to know they are accepted, that they mean something, that their issues are important, and that they can trust their attorney. That’s what he brings.” 

Nancy herself was a volunteer with MVLS before she joined as the first family law attorney on staff. Her experience volunteering made her realize the need for good family law representation. Joining the staff was a goal realized and a personal honor. “I always wanted to be a part of the mission to provide equity within legal services,” she said.  

The unfortunate reality is that pro se clients, particularly people of color, are less likely than their white or more affluent counterparts to receive a successful outcome in court. Black and brown individuals face discrimination that has devastating effects on not only their case, but also their health and well-being. For example, courts often presume that people of color do not know how to care for their children and are in fact neglectful and abusive; Black fathers in particular face the presumption that they are incapable or disinterested in caring for their children. And while many judges show fair treatment toward Black individuals in custody cases, there are many who continue to harbor implicit racial bias that influences their rulings.  

“Our volunteers are getting quality programs…we engage and learn with each other.”

Because of these issues, volunteer attorneys must be prepared to advocate for both racial justice and a favorable legal outcome. MVLS offers trainings and mentoring, with an emphasis on the core value of eliminating systemic barriers to justice based on race and economic disparities. “Our volunteers are getting quality programs through MVLS, Nancy emphasized. “We engage and learn with each other.”  

Funding from the MLSC allows MVLS to reimburse family law volunteers who take complicated or contested cases at a low-bono rate. But as Nancy sees it, the primary benefit of volunteering is improving the lives of others. “We as attorneys develop a sense of accomplishment by providing a worthwhile and valuable service to our community,” she said.  

In Ms. Lewis-Smith’s case, the benefit was tangible. Together, she and Curtis Cooper won her case, securing a modest alimony that she uses to cover groceries and medical expenses. 

Interested in volunteering? Visit our Pro Bono Portal to take a case today.

We See MVLS as the Gold Standard

2023 Annual Report

It was 3 a.m. in the spring of 2020, and Betsy Simon woke up to the sound of her phone ringing.  

On the other end of the line was a man who had found her flier in his senior-living high rise. He was calling to ask if Betsy knew how he and the other residents could get food. Betsy would normally call on the Baltimore City Health Department’s Division of Aging, but they were closed because of the pandemic. So, she arranged for a delivery herself. 

Since 1969, Betsy has been working to organize leaders and residents around issues of health equity and social justice. In 2009, she founded the Zeta Healthy Aging Partnership (Z-HAP) with the endorsement and support of her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta. It was during Z-HAP’s expansion to the Langston Hughes Community Resource Center in West Baltimore when she first met Susan Francis, then the deputy director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS). MVLS was at the center to host presentations about common legal issues. 

In those early days, MVLS was just starting to expand its work with groups like Betsy’s who are often closest to and most directly involved with solving issues related to justice. Betsy’s work with older adults and MVLS’ interest in sharing legal information, especially about creating wills and advance medical directives, made the partnership between Z-HAP and MVLS a natural fit.  

“MVLS has become a staple of our programming…We can trust MVLS”

-Betsy Simon

In 2020, following the outbreak of COVID-19, Betsy ceased Z-HAP’s in-person meetings – but her work was far from over. Instead, she set up a conference call with her members, and together, they identified community needs and coordinated a response. That included safely distanced drop-offs of food, medicine, bandages, and more to residents across the city.  

The group, now called the BDS Healthy Aging Network (short for Betsy D. Simon), had their first conference call on March 18, 2020. They haven’t missed a Wednesday since.   

Betsy D. Simon pictured on Zoom

Tell me about your organization:  

First and foremost, I must honor and thank my husband, Deacon Henry Simon, for his support and sponsorship of every organization and community outreach initiative that I’ve founded, established or operated.  

BDS Healthy Aging Networks, Inc started in 2020 with the pandemic. On March 18, 2020, people started calling in to a conference line I’d set up. Those calls stretched on – from one hour, to an hour and a half, and so on – so we decided to do the calls once a week.  

Today, BDS Healthy Aging is a network of resource partners who come together to learn about needs and share resources. We address social determinants of health while acknowledging, respecting, and treating older adults as assets, not burdens, regardless of their age, economic or health status. We primarily support older adults, caregivers, those experiencing homelessness, the blind and low vision community, and people who are experiencing other hardships.  

While we started with telephone conversations, we moved to Zoom after a training by Dr. Margaret Pittman from Morgan State University. Today, this older-adults driven movement reaches hundreds of people and community partners. 

How do MVLS and BDS work together?  

Early on, Susan and her staff started coming [to the Langston Hughes Community Resource Center] once a month to do housing, estate planning, and other presentations about all that MVLS has to offer. 

The relationship has continued throughout the years. Just last week, MVLS presented at New Psalmist Baptist Church where I have been working as a volunteer consultant. Susan has done a number of presentations about the wealth gap and how much it impacts Black older adults in particular. And we have done additional follow up about avoiding frauds and scams, and why you should do estate planning. Most of the programs that MVLS offers that impact older adults and their families have been presented to us on Zoom.  

The most revolutionary thing that we’ve done together is the programming that shows people how to take practical legal steps. We’ve had partners come on [to the BDS Healthy Aging Network meeting] to give information and a handout. Sometimes it’s a great program but people don’t understand how to act on it. So MVLS agreed to do monthly presentations (every second Wednesday from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.) that show people how to get your tax credit, get information about your utilities, and other practical legal applications. MVLS has become a staple of our programming. 

The benefits are overwhelming, even those we don’t understand. It’s not always known how important legal issues are to ensuring that there is health equity and social justice. Many times, people don’t know what rights we actually have, what we need to do to stay well, how we can be proactive about issues like housing stability or criminal record expungement or estate planning.  

How does BDS benefit from your work with MVLS?  

MVLS brings the issues to us. We can trust MVLS. We can ask stupid questions that a regular attorney might dismiss, especially as older adults and underserved populations.  

Having legal services available on a regular basis with no cost is an enormous benefit. 

We see MVLS as the gold standard among law services, profit or nonprofit, and I think it’s the culture that Susan has created under her leadership that MVLS is easy to reach out to. As far as I know, no one is turned away without an answer. 

How does MVLS benefit from its work with the BDS Network?  

It’s a two-way street. We know if anything comes up, MVLS will help connect people to assistance. And MVLS asks for suggestions. I hope MVLS has benefitted from candid conversations. Our members will speak the truth of what they believe, and MVLS will listen. Their philosophy is one of respect for older adults and the Black community. 

One of MVLS’ core values is its commitment to dismantling racial and economic injustice. Why is that important?  

There are certain things within the system that over time I realized are embedded. Personally, I’ve witnessed [racial injustice]. Unfortunately, like many families I’ve had family members who had to enter the court system. I’ve served on jury panels and had the opportunity to sit in the courtroom. You see how different people are treated when they approach the bench or stand up for service. Even when you put in a judge, prosecutor or someone who may feel differently, they quickly move into the culture without even thinking or knowing about it, and they don’t address the bias they see in front of them.    

It’s important that MVLS address it, because they have the wherewithal to speak on the subject.  

When you see injustice, you can either sit there, or you can speak out and do something. From where I sit, MVLS and others like it do something.  

BDS is a powerful network of older adults. Share more about your core belief that older adults are key assets to their communities.  

Older adults have history. They are in a position to, and still do, run this country. Look at the people making contributions – nurses, doctors, health educators, staff who are required to go to work, people at churches!  

We are often on Zoom with people who are talking about what “seniors” need, and those same people look like they are 65 or older. So, we know they are running the country and our agencies, but because we don’t acknowledge they are there and contributing, we miss out.  

That’s what I want to get across. We contribute! Older adults are assets, not burdens to the system.  

I see the work we’re doing with MVLS as helping us advocate for ourselves. It’s like the saying about fishing. I see the training and advocacy we’re doing with MVLS as key to independence.  

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity 

Betsy Dinkins Simon, M.S., CHES is a nationally certified health education specialist and the Founding Director and CEO of Betsy D. Simon Enterprises© (1969); Z-HAP (2009) and subsequent Founder and President of the BDS Healthy Aging Networks, Inc. For decades she has designed and implemented needs-based programs and interventions for underserved populations across the nation. Prior to her current full time volunteer position, Betsy held positions as professor and administrator, Coppin State University; city-wide Health Education administrator, Baltimore City Schools; project manager and co-investigator, Friends Research Institute, Inc.; and more. Betsy was a Mayor and City Council appointee to the Commission on Aging (2013 – 2020) and represented the Commission on the City Interagency Committee on Aging. She continues as consultant/advisor to agencies and school. community & faith-based organizations. 

Your support of MVLS provides resources for community presentations and partnerships like this one. Learn more about community partnerships on our website.

Rianna Eckel Interviewed by Food and Water Watch, “Advocates Urge Expanded Public Hearings About Baltimore’s Water and Sewer System”

Rianna Eckel, Baltimore Water Outreach Coordinator with MVLS is quoted in the latest press release from Food and Water Watch. The Baltimore Regional Water Governance Task Force is deemed with creating awareness and ultimately recommending a new plan of governance, and they want to hear from you! Learn more about how you can get involved below.