It can be challenging for anyone to navigate the legal system when dealing with issues such as evictions, debt, abuse and unemployment. Now, a Maryland task force has identified ways to help marginalized communities better access the state’s civil justice system.
The Maryland attorney general’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force has completed its report and announced on Monday 59 legislative and policy recommendations.
“Our objective was to examine COVID-19’s impact on Marylanders and make recommendations on how to deploy the legal system to ensure that the state’s most vulnerable remain housed, fed, safe, secure, employed, healthy and connected to civil justice,” said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh.
The COVID-19 pandemic has strained an already stressed social safety net, and people of color are affected disproportionately.
“COVID-19 did not create the systemic failings and inequities of our social safety net in our civil justice system, but it laid bare the fault lines, and the pandemic exacerbated and brought to light with painful clarity the deficiencies and the suffering that they cause,” Frosh said.
When pandemic-related restrictions on evictions are lifted, Frosh said hundreds of thousands of Marylanders face homelessness. Maryland has about 665,000 evictions a year, but only about 825,000 rental units.
“That’s an extraordinary number, and one of the reasons is that landlords file multiple times during the year against the same tenants,” Frosh said. “There are some landlords who file every month on the sixth of the month — regardless of whether the tenant always pays on the eighth or 10th, landlords are in court on the sixth.”
One task force recommendation would raise the fee for landlords to file for evictions. Maryland’s filing fee is third lowest in the nation.
The task force proposes the current $15 fee be raised to match the national average of $122.
The goal would be to create resources for legal services to ensure people have “right to counsel” in eviction proceedings.
“We’re looking for targets that we can hit,” Frosh said. “Right to counsel, at least in eviction proceedings, is within our grasp in the near future — especially if we can bring the cost of filing an eviction action in line with that of the rest of the country.”
Another task force idea would create a system so people filing for unemployment insurance can see their place in line, track the status of their claim and get an anticipated wait time for rulings to be made.
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