Briefly about history of Legal Aid
Before 1911, the commonly held view was that justice for the poor was a work of charity—and that one had to deserve charity in order to get it.
So a workman hired on Monday and fired on Thursday by an unscrupulous employer who didn’t pay him on Friday had neither the money to hire a lawyer nor the fees to file a lawsuit.
Access to the courts was a luxury for the rich and charity for the poor. The Charity Organization Society (the predecessor of the Federated Charities) offered legal help to the poor through “honorary counsel,” members of the bar who provided pro bono services to the poor.
While commendable, then as now, pro bono service by the private bar was insufficient to meet the need.
A significant step toward closing the justice gap occurred in 1911, when the Federated Charities founded the Legal Aid Bureau in Baltimore. It was part of trend started in New York and other American cities toward the end of the 19th century to form societies to offer legal assistance to immigrants and other poor people.
Thomas F. Cadwalader was named Legal Aid’s first general counsel in September 1911. His office was staffed on a part-time basis and handled 234 cases that year. From its founding through 1929, Legal Aid operated as a program of the Federated Charities and depended on private contributions for its operations.
In 1929, Baltimore attorneys H. Hamilton Hackney and John A. O'Shea took over leadership of Legal Aid. and set up an office at 818 Equitable Building in Baltimore. Hackney believed that justice shouldn’t be a matter of charity and that people should be secure in the knowledge “that their poverty does not necessarily mean that they will be in a position of inequality before the law.”
As a result of Hackney and O'Shea's efforts, Legal Aid evolved from a charity organization to an independent, private nonprofit corporation. He also reorganized Legal Aid and lobbied for government support. Its budget the first year was $4,433.
According to The Sun (July 7, 1949), “[t]he first case handled in 1929…[was] from a letter sent to the bureau from the Supreme Bench, requesting it to interest itself in the marital difficulties of a wife who had appealed to the judge for help.”
After the Depression began, Legal Aid’s poverty practice mushroomed. By 1932 it was serving 3,200 clients a year (with a paid staff of two and a budget of $8,000 from the Community Chest), while the organization obtained financial support and free office space from the Baltimore City government. Additional help in the form of more attorneys came from the federal government’s Works Progress Administration.
According to newspaper articles and period documents, Legal Aid lawyers staved off foreclosures on clients’ homes, settled landlord-tenant disputes and help clients deal with furniture dealers when they fell behind in their payments. They took employers to court who tried to cheat laborers out of their $9-a-week wages. In 1932, wage cases were the largest portion of Legal Aid’s case load.
By the mid-1930s, Legal Aid’s budget had grown to $12,000 a year and the staff provided advice and representation in 5,000 cases. As early as 1938, Legal Aid lawyers did not engage in an outside practice. The Legal Aid Clinic, a program jointly sponsored with the University of Maryland School of Law, provided the first clinical experience for law students.
Hackney was also ahead of his time in realizing that taking on clients’ problems piecemeal wasn’t the most effective way to help. Under his guidance, Legal Aid compiled statistics that illustrated the legal dilemmas of the poor, and it sometimes recommended remedial legislation to further protect their rights. But like other legal service organizations of its era, Legal Aid lacked the resources and clout to effect meaningful change.
Following Hackney’s resignation in December 1939, J. Martin McDonough was appointed counsel for Legal Aid. He continued Hackney’s work and fostered cooperation with the private bar. A joint committee formed in 1940 determined the types of matters appropriate for referral to the private bar, with the goal of increasing the availability of legal counsel for clients.
Gerald Monsman succeeded McDonough in 1941; the legal staff consisted of five lawyers. Monsman led Legal Aid until 1954, overseeing its 100,000th client in 1949 and seeing the annual caseload grow to 7,000. Monsman stressed professionalism in the practice of law and was a supporter of the Legal Clinic.
In 1953 Baltimore City built its new People’s Court Building at Fallsway and Gay streets. The third floor was dedicated to Legal Aid’s use—the first arrangement in the U.S. between a legal aid office and a municipal government. The office’s opening was attended by Mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro Jr. and Harrison Tweed, president of the National Legal Aid Association, delivered the dedication address.
Through much of the 1960s, Paul R. Schlitz, who later served as the Clerk of the District Court, served as Chief Attorney. The period was a time of change both nationally and locally as the civil rights movement gathered steam and President Kennedy was assassinated. Lyndon Johnson became president and instituted a war on poverty, which funneled funds for legal services to the nation’s cities for the first time.
In 1962, Legal Aid was scraping by on a $64,000-a-year budget (largely gleaned from private charitable contributions) with a staff of six lawyers that served 9,000 clients (managing to get fewer than 600 cases to court). Yet by nationwide standards, it was an impressive effort as private legal aid societies around the nation collectively were only able to raise about $5 million.
The 1964 Economic Opportunities Act passed by Congress altered the landscape dramatically by launching the war on poverty. Influenced by a seminal Yale Law Review by Jean and Edgar Cahn, the Johnson administration decided that legal representation for the poor would help further the cause.
The federal Office of Economic Opportunity, the command center for Johnson’s anti-poverty effort, created the Office of Legal Services, first headed by Clinton Bamberger (a Baltimorean who later served on the board of Legal Aid).
By 1966 OEO was pumping $20 million into 130 local legal services organizations around the country with a mission that included an examination of the root causes of poverty and to break the cycle of poverty. Legal Aid’s budget was quintupled and by 1970 boasted an $800,000 budget ($450,000 from the feds) and served nearly 22,000 clients.
Legal Aid also expanded by opening neighborhood offices. Joseph A. Matera, first as deputy director to Schlitz and then as executive director, guided the effort. The number of attorneys on staff rose to 34, including Reginald Heber Smith Fellows and VISTA lawyers.
Legal Aid also initiated the first public defender program in Baltimore in 1970 to defend people accused of crimes and continued to operate the program until the state created the Office of the Public Defender in 1972.
With additional funding (the United Fund of Central Maryland, the Bar Association of Baltimore City, the state department of employment and social services, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Governor’s Commission on Crime and Law Enforcement), in 1971 Legal Aid established full-time offices in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties.
The same year Legal Aid also pioneered a paralegal program to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of its legal work. Between 1969 and 1971, the staff more than doubled and the budget increased to $1.7 million.
In 1974 President Nixon, in one of his last presidential acts, signed into law the National Legal Services Corporation Act; the next year the Legal Services Corp. was established. Legal services organizations across the country continued a rapid expansion.
The same year, Charles H. Dorsey, who had served as Matera’s deputy director, was appointed executive director of Legal Aid. Under his leadership Legal Aid established offices in Prince George’s, Montgomery, Howard and Frederick counties; and in Cumberland, Salisbury and Centreville (now Easton), marking its expansion to a statewide system.The Baltimore County office (Towson) opened in September 1979.
Dorsey grew up in segregated Baltimore and was the first black graduate of Loyola College and the first black attorney to serve on the state Board of Law Examiners. Under his guidance, Legal Aid—whose budget had grown to $12.5 million—reached out to both the urban and rural poor. Attorneys began to take on larger cases, often using the aggressive tool of class-action litigation.
Starting in the late 1970s, Legal Aid began to champion the cause of migrant farmworkers, sued the state’s steel industry to eliminate practices that prevented women and minorities from getting higher-paying jobs, and targeted the cause of mentally disabled people.
In 1979, Legal Aid won a landmark case in the state courts guaranteeing the mentally disabled the right to have attorneys represent them at commitment hearings. The same year they won a federal decision, Johnson v. Solomon, that compelled mental institutions to regularly review the cases of child patients and determine whether they had improved enough to gain release.
In Griffin v. Richardson, a U.S. Supreme Court case, Legal Aid overturned as unconstitutional a federal rule barring children born out of wedlock from getting their deceased fathers’ social security benefits—a win that not only helped impoverished children in Maryland, but aided 30,000 children across the nation.
Yet the efforts of legal services in Maryland and elsewhere were drawing ire from conservatives.
In the 1980s, President Reagan sought to eliminate LSC, submitting seven straight budgets without an appropriation for the corporation. While some of the funding was restored by a sympathetic Congress, Legal Aid lost $1.2 million in funding in 1982. The shortfall forced a cut in staffing of attorneys in most offices from three to two, forcing those who remained with hard choices about who needed the most help.
In response to the cuts, the General Assembly established the Maryland Legal Services Corp. to provide additional funding to Legal Aid and other small nonprofits representing the poor. MLSC set up an Interest of Lawyers’ Trust Account (IOLTA) program, a method used in other states to collect interest paid on the accounts (containing clients’ funds such as real estate settlements and awards in personal injury cases) for use by legal service organizations.
In 1984, Legal Aid filed a class-action lawsuit against the state against top state social services officials and 20 case workers in charge of monitoring foster children in Baltimore. The suit brought $15 million in damages for the lead plaintiff, L.J. (a nine-year-old boy known only by his initials) and four other abuse victims and major changes in the way the foster-care system was run.
Class-actions, however, became a thing of the past for LSC-funded organizations in 1995, when the newly Republican-controlled Congress tried to achieve what Reagan couldn’t—to do away completely with LSC. Its funding was slashed from $400 million to $278 million. In Maryland, Legal Aid lost $1.4 million (a 34-percent drop).
In addition, Congress succeeded in placing major restrictions on what LSC-funded lawyers could do: prohibiting class actions, barring the collection of attorneys’ fees, rulemaking, lobbying, litigation on behalf of prisoners, representation in drug-related public housing evictions, and representation of certain categories of immigrants.
The restrictions went into effect in 1996, a year after Dorsey died suddenly of a heart attack. His successor, Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., is a veteran of LSC-funded programs in Mississippi and New York. Under Joseph’s leadership, funding for Legal Aid grew from $7 million to over $20 million a year.
Other changes include the renovation of all of Legal Aid’s offices and increased staff salaries— which helps explain why seven out of 13 chief (or managing) attorneys around the state are former Legal Aid lawyers who returned after stints in private or government practice.
The beneficiaries of the improvements are Legal Aid’s clients, who include residents of subsidized and public housing, the elderly, migrant farmworkers, and neglected and abused children. Examples of this bread-and-butter work include highly contentious custody disputes, cases involving sub-standard housing and loss of shelter, and the loss of disability and other health benefits, to name a few.
As it enters the 21st century, Legal Aid’s major objectives are to increase economic stability of its clients, preserve affordable housing, and stabilize families and communities. Yet its efforts go beyond helping individual clients. Those objectives include making changes in systems that affect the poor.
For example, one ongoing project (funded by the Abell Foundation) works to decrease employment barriers to 45,000 non-custodial fathers in Baltimore whose child-support obligations (especially money owed to the state) exceed their ability to pay. Think dead broke, not “deadbeat.”
Another example: housing preservation. Under a three-year, $450,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Legal Aid helped thousands of low-income Marylanders living in properties where federal subsidies are about to run out.
In Annapolis, Legal Aid’s 20-year representation of the Bloomsbury public housing project resulted in a victory that resulted in the relocation of residents—many of them elderly and disabled—to new waterfront housing that keeps intact the last black neighborhood in the city.
“Instead of moving to a remote area far from jobs, shopping, schools and public transportation, the residents will move a block to new housing that will conform to historic-area building standards on a former parking lot on College Creek,” said Janet LaBella, then chief attorney of Legal Aid’s Anne Arundel County office.
The bottom line? It’s Legal Aid’s commitment to justice.
“We at Legal Aid have the most exciting and satisfying jobs in the world,” Joseph said. “In a society that stresses individual achievement—where you pull yourself up by your bootstraps—Legal Aid helps those without boots.
“By providing access to justice to tens of thousands of Marylanders each year, Legal Aid attorneys and support staff bring equity and stability to society.”