ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WJZ) — Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh released a report Monday outlining recommendations to help residents recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report comes from the COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force, which worked for six months to identify the hurdles residents face to get the help they need when dealing with things like evictions, custody battles and other issues that may involve the court system.

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It also identified the structural racism and inequalities that have added to the challenges faced by communities of color. Residents have complained of being bounced between state departments and a lack of information on where to get help.

CORONAVIRUS RESOURCES: 

“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,” Frosh said.

“Comprised of experts from a broad range of industries, the task force acted with urgency to develop solid recommendations to address the civil legal issues plaguing our most vulnerable populations as a result of the pandemic,” he added. “I appreciate the many hours of work by the members of the task force. I am hopeful that we have developed a roadmap to help Maryland recover from this crisis and to put the state in a stronger position to weather future health and economic crises.”

The report, Confronting the COVID-19 Access to Justice Crisis, issued 59 legislative and policy recommendations based on their discussions with 300 stakeholders — including advocates, civil legal aid attorneys, service providers, legislators, administration officials, policy experts and Maryland residents.

“As our country battles COVID-19, the greatest burdens have fallen on communities of color and those struggling to find a path out of poverty. This pandemic has shined a harsh light on the injustices in our country in our economic, housing, health care, and criminal justice systems, and underscored the immediate need to address these inequities,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen. “The COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force’s final report has taken a comprehensive look at these issues and makes concrete recommendations to help Maryland families, workers, and those in need weather this storm.”

Key recommendations include ensuring Marylanders have housing; are economically secure, healthy, and safe; have enough to eat and meaningful access to the civil justice system.

“We are honored to have helped lead this task force that has helped shine a brighter light on the access to justice challenges plaguing our state,” said Reena K. Shah, task force vice-chair and executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission. “Many people are unaware of how the civil justice system touches so many aspects and issues such as housing, unemployment, consumer debt, domestic violence, immigration, healthcare, life planning, divorce and custody, as well as public benefits.”

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“When people are forced to navigate the civil justice system on their own, it can have dire results. The Maryland Access to Justice Commission exists to ensure that there is civil justice for all, not just for those who can afford it,” Shah continued. “The work that was started in the task force continues in the Commission. We will be actively working with our justice partners to get many of these recommendations implemented.”

Here’s a breakdown of some of the recommendations:

HOUSING:

  • 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.

ECONOMICALLY SECURED:

  • Eliminate body attachments for consumer debt.
  • Decrease the collection fee charged by the State’s Central Collection Unit on civil debt from the current fee of “up to 20 percent” 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.

HEALTH & HUNGER:

  • 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.

SAFETY:

  • 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.

ACCESS TO CIVIL JUSTICE:

  • 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 breadth and depth of the diversity of the task force was required to ensure that all voices were represented,” said Andre M. Davis, task force vice chair and former senior judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. “The pandemic has wreaked havoc on hundreds of thousands of Marylanders, but for many of our most vulnerable communities, the pandemic has been a devastating blow. It was imperative to ensure that we did not reinforce harms to these same communities when they interacted with the civil justice system. It was incumbent upon all members of the task force to develop solutions through a racial equity lens, to ensure all Marylanders have equal access to the civil justice system.”

The work of the task force and creation of the final report was generously supported by the Abell Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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For the latest information on coronavirus go to the Maryland Health Department’s website or call 211. You can find all of WJZ’s coverage on coronavirus in Maryland here.

Rachael Cardin