Maryland officials expect spike in court cases, unveil COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force
MARYLAND – There’s a push to make free and affordable legal help more widely available in Maryland. This comes as officials say there are looming issues related to COVID-19 that can no longer be pushed aside.
“As courts reopen we expect to see a huge spike in civil legal court cases,” says Reena Shah, the executive director for the Maryland Access to Justice Commission.
On Thursday, Maryland officials announced the creation of the COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force. “We’re going to be doing the best we can to prevent homelessness, prevent people from going hungry and loosing public benefits,” says Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh.
The task force was born out of a partnership between Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and the Maryland Access to Justice Commission. Officials say unemployment due to COVID-19 has amplified legal issues like medical and consumer debt, people being denied public benefits as well as evictions and foreclosures.
“These are all issues in one form or another that were with us before COVID-19. They have been exacerbated by COVID-19,” says U.S. Democrat Senator Chris Van Hollen.
Some penalties like evictions have been temporarily halted because of the rate of unemployment but officials say they’re worried about what may happen once things go back to normal. “I think we’re going to face a tsunami and foreclosures when the stays that have been implemented end. They are currently scheduled to end in July,” says Frosh.
So the goal of this new task force is to examine the top legal issues Marylanders are facing due to COVID-19 and then make recommendations to lawmakers about what changes should be made to the justice system before it’s too late.
“Civil legal aid must be a vital component of the public recovery from the current public health and economic crisis,” says Shah.
Officials are hoping this task force will address other related issues as well. To start, many court and legal processes have changed due to COVID-19 making it even more challenging to understand. Second, legal assistance or pro bono usually helps people navigate the system. However, officials say funding for those types of organizations has already declined 70 percent due to COVID-19 budget cuts.
The Access to Justice Task Force will meet for the first time in June and they plan to meet three times before December. We’re told they will have recommendations ready for lawmakers by January, when the General Assembly convenes.