The Challenge of the Justice Gap in America
In the United States, only people charged with a criminal offense have a constitutional right to a lawyer. There are no free Public Defenders for low-income Marylanders defending critical civil cases, like home foreclosure, child custody, consumer debt or tax disputes. A recent study, Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA, found that 66% of adults in the United States faced at least one civil legal issue in the past 18 months.
The poor, working poor and middle class who can’t afford a private lawyer’s hourly rate must rely on an underfunded and overburdened legal aid system that currently meets just 20% of the need (according to the Legal Services Corporation’s Documenting the Justice Gap in America). The remaining 80%, who can’t get a lawyer, are at a severe disadvantage when they face sophisticated creditors or skilled opposing counsel in court. Tragically, unresolved civil legal issues that affect an individual’s livelihood, health, housing and family, can cause a family teetering on the edge, to spiral into poverty.
Pro Bono is Part of the Solution
Civil legal assistance assures fairness for all in our court system. It provides access to legal help for people to protect their fundamental rights and property interests. Because the traditional legal aid model is unable to meet the increasing demand for legal services because of funding cuts, part of the solution for making sure low-income Marylanders have a lawyer to help them keep their family intact, maintain safe housing, and respond to consumer scams is the pro bono legal assistance.
All lawyers have a professional responsibility to render pro bono legal assistance and, in Maryland, lawyers are encouraged to fulfill an aspirational goal of 50 pro bono hours annually. According to the annual report prepared by the Standing Committee on Pro Bono, 42.1% of Maryland lawyers met this goal in 2015 – many by volunteering with MVLS. MVLS has more than 1,600 volunteer lawyers on our panel who provide life-changing legal assistance to low-income Marylanders in every Maryland jurisdiction.
Imagine what could be done to close the justice gap if 100% of Maryland lawyers did pro bono work. You – our dedicated volunteers, generous donors, committed partner agencies and concerned community members – are the solution.