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When the poor need a lawyer

November 14, 2004|by WANDA T. WILLIAMS

wandaw@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - A growing number of Washington County residents cannot afford legal representation in court - a growing problem in the county, the president of the Washington County Bar Association said.

To help ease the problem, more Washington County attorneys are offering free, or pro bono, legal service to those who qualify. Arthur Schneider said the Maryland Court of Appeals requires that attorneys provide a minimum of 50 pro bono hours per year, which he says is just a drop in the bucket.

"We have tons and tons of work being done by local attorneys," he said.

The Washington County Bar Association has formed a special committee of local attorneys who are in the process of raising awareness and developing a more efficient system of identifying low-income individuals and organizations that qualify for pro bono service.

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"In the next six months, our goal is to identify areas of greatest need along with available resources and figure out ways to provide legal services to those who need it," Schneider said.

Washington County ranks sixth in the state among counties where attorneys provide pro bono representation, according to a 2002 judicial report released by the Maryland Court of Appeals. Thirty-two percent of Washington County attorneys donated 50 hours or more of pro bono service, the report said.

Frederick County ranked 14th in the state, with 28 percent of attorneys there donating 50 hours or more of their time.

Although the report doesn't list a specific number of residents in Washington and Frederick counties who have received pro bono assistance, attorneys in Western and Eastern Maryland performed a majority of the state's pro bono service, according to Janet Eveleth, a spokeswoman with the Maryland State Bar Association.

Maryland attorneys donated more than 1 million hours in volunteer pro bono work, Eveleth said. It is estimated that Maryland attorneys donated more than $150 million in legal services to help the poor.

Established in 1990, the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland in Baltimore is a subsidiary of the state bar association. The center refers people and organizations to attorneys across the state who voluntarily donate their services.

"In 1990, we handled 1,800 cases, and we're now handling 8,000 to 9,000 cases," said Sharon E. Goldsmith, the center's executive director.

When it comes to criminal cases, the Sixth Amendment provides a court-appointed lawyer to anyone who cannot afford to hire a lawyer in cases with penalties requiring jail time, Deputy District Public Defender Mary Riley said. However, lawyers are not provided for those who cannot afford legal representation in civil matters involving such domestic problems as landlord-tenant, personal property, consumer, elder-care and civil rights disputes, Schneider said.

While some people may question the reliability of pro bono service, Schneider said attorneys have an ethical obligation to treat each client the same.

"You can't distinguish between clients based on money," he said.

For assistance in securing affordable legal counsel, contact the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland at 800-492-1964 or send e-mail to pbrc@probonomd.org.

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