On January 11, 2021, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh released a report detailing the state’s recommendations to help Maryland residents recover from the severe impacts of COVID-19. The report was issued by the COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force and outlined a holistic approach by making 59 legislative and policy recommendations. The Access to Justice Task Force is a partnership between the Maryland Attorney General’s Office and the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, whose goal is to develop strategies and solutions to address the civil legal challenges facing Marylanders in the wake of COVID-19.
The report, Confronting the COVID-19 Access to Justice Crisis, is a culmination of six months of work by members of the task force. In a press release issued by Attorney General Frosh, he stated the task force worked to develop recommendations that acknowledge the structural racism and inequities that have “deepened the challenges faced by communities of color and have denied access to the civil justice system that is necessary to resolving those challenges.” The task force includes leaders from the public, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors as well as members of Maryland’s Congressional delegation, the judiciary, and the General Assembly. Frosh further noted, “COVID-19 did not create the systemic failings and inequities of our social safety net and civil justice system. Rather, the pandemic exacerbated and brought to light these deficiencies and the significant harm they cause.”
Recommendations in the report focused on the task force’s five main themes, including ensuring that residents of Maryland are: housed, economically secure, healthy, and have enough to eat, safe, and have meaningful access to the civil justice system. A few of the key recommendations in each of the five themes are as follows:
Ensuring Marylanders are Housed:
- Increase the filing fee for summary ejectment actions and prohibit the fee from being passed on to tenants.
- Provide a right to counsel to defendants at both the trial and mediation/settlement phases of eviction proceedings.
- Institute due process reforms and data reporting requirements to allow more time and targeted intervention for diversion efforts and eviction and homelessness prevention.
Ensuring Marylanders are Economically Secure:
- Decrease the collection fee charged by the State’s Central Collection Unit on civil debt from the current fee of “up to 20 percent” down to 6 percent.
- Allow the heirs of an estate to receive the homeowner’s tax credit to reduce the amount of real property taxes that the estate/heirs would otherwise be required to pay.
Ensuring Marylanders are Healthy and Have Enough to Eat:
- Establishing a tracking system to track the status of unemployment insurance claims through application, processing, and review.
- Increase and maintain Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits.
- Connect unemployed individuals who have lost health insurance coverage to health insurance options offered by the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange.
- Build health equity and increase health care services for populations disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and historically underserved by making permanent telehealth and audio services.
Ensuring Marylanders are Safe:
- Require the Maryland Commissioner of Labor and Industry to develop and adopt regulations to provide protections to workers, including establishing standards for health care industry and emergency response employers, and requiring employers to provide paid leave to workers who must self-quarantine due to workplace exposure.
- Amend Maryland’s Healthy Working Families Act to: (1) remove the exemptions from required paid sick leave for underage workers, agricultural workers, and temporary or part-time staffing workers; and (2) add eligibility to use paid sick leave during a declared public health emergency.
- Require the State and counties to increase transparency regarding their receipt and expenditure of federal emergency funding.
Ensuring Marylanders Have Access to the Civil Justice System:
- Mandate a new appropriation from the State’s General Fund to support Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC)-funded civil legal aid services as well as civil legal aid and legal support services provided by organizations not funded by MLSC.
- Increase pro bono legal services to meet the rising demand for civil legal aid.
- Have a single point of entry for information about civil legal aid.
- Incorporate civil legal needs into emergency planning and government agencies whose missions deal with basic human needs.
The legislative and policy recommendations, if adopted, would have a wide-ranging impact on COVID-19 recovery, in addition to the protections afforded by the federal stimulus packages.