Ronald Reagan once said, “The most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’” Also frightening for many people are the words “You need to go to court.” To help make the prospect of dealing with the courts a little less frightening, there are many free and low-cost legal resources available to the public. The best resource for dealing with issues involving the courts will always be an attorney. But approximately 80% of people who interact with the Maryland court system represent themselves. For these people, there is assistance available in-person, online and over the phone.
One source of free in-person legal help is the Family Law Self-Help Center, which provides legal information and forms to assist unrepresented litigants in matters of divorce, custody/visitation, child support and name changes. The center is in the circuit court for Anne Arundel County’s Law Library, Suite 303, on the third floor (main entry floor), 8 Church Circle in Annapolis. It is open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 4:30pm, and assistance is given on a first come, first served basis. More information is available on the Anne Arundel Circuit Court website at www.circuitcourt.org.
Another source of free in-person legal help is the variety of legal clinics offered throughout the state, such as the popular Lawyer in the Library program in which attorneys travel to local libraries to provide one-on-one advice on a variety of civil legal issues including bankruptcy; child custody and support; debt collection; expungements; foreclosure; government benefits; housing; landlord/tenant; veterans’ benefits; and wage claims. To find these and other free upcoming legal clinics near you, visit The People’s Law Library at www.peoples-law.org. On this same page is a legal services directory with a listing of free and low-cost legal service providers in Maryland, and a page with resources for people looking for mediators, self-help centers, fee-based legal assistance, as well as a listing of non-legal social services providers.
Online information and resources are available on a wide variety of topics at the Maryland Courts webpage under the “self-help” tab, which can be found at www.mdcourts.gov/legalhelp. One of the more popular features on this site is the self-help video library. These self-help videos provide short, easy-to-understand summaries on divorce, expungement, child custody, rent, adult guardianship, small claims, and a variety of other topics. Each video includes transcripts in English and Spanish, a tip sheet, and links to resources, forms and court services.
Phone and chat lines are other free resources that are available. These have extended hours, so they are especially useful for people who can’t break away to talk during the regular workday. You can call and chat with an attorney from the Maryland Courts Self-Help Center about your civil legal matter, at no cost, from 8:30am to 8:00pm, Monday through Friday at 410-260-1392.
Also, if your case is a criminal or serious (jailable) traffic case, a district court commissioner will determine whether you qualify to be represented by the Office of the Public Defender. Further information is available at www.mdcourts.gov/district/pdinfo.
I hope making more people aware of these resources will help those who may find themselves in need of them.
Scott Poyer is the clerk of the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. The opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maryland Judiciary.