RIVERDALE — Community Legal Services, a nonprofit organization representing low-income members of Prince George’s County, recently elected a new president and board members and started the first program in the county to protect tenants from unlawful eviction.
With the previous board members’ terms ending, Community Legal Services elected several new Board of Directors members, all attorneys of various backgrounds, such as Doyle Niemann, who works for the Office of the State’s Attorney; Cristina Caron-Moroney, who works with the office of Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr., P.A., Eleanor Hunt from the office of Joseph Greenwald and Laake PA, Joseph A. Compofelice, who works with MarcusBonsib, LLC and Clifford B. Glover of McNamee Hosea.
“With the new board I hope that they’ll help us to continue to grow our programs,” said Executive Director Jessica Quincosa.
In addition to the board members, Constance Belfiore, former executive director of Community Legal Services, was elected as president of the organization.
“My goals are to continue the good work of this organization,” Belfiore said. “Continue to increase partnerships, to locate new sources of income and to ensure Community Legal Services is known to everyone who might be a client and those who take cases for clients.”
Belfiore was with the organization from the time it was founded in 1989 when it was called the Law Foundation of Prince George’s County. Belfiore, a former prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney, was asked to be an executive director by founding members Judge Darlene Perry and Attorney Lenny Goldstein.
The organization began with only one paralegal in the office making referrals and soon grew to three lawyers and three paralegals in the first couple of years. From the beginning, the organization had a big focus on pro bono cases, work taken without charge from clients, and over time expanded to low bono, cases taken at a discounted rate.
Belfiore also saw the organization grow from a telephone service company to creating clinics and working in courthouses. They have outreach clinics in Upper Marlboro and Clinton, work closely with the Hispanic population in Takoma Park and work off and on with homeless shelters.
On top of this, over the years they’ve expanded to partner with not just legal services, but with social services to help people with a broader variety of issues.
Belfiore was the executive director from 1989 to 2001 and then went on to work with the National Association of Women Judges. She was then asked to join the Community Legal Services board as the treasurer for three years before being asked to be the new president in July.
“This is clearly an organization that I care a lot about, and I feel that I can be helpful to them going forward,” she said.
After having seen the organization grow from the beginning, Belfiore is taking Community Legal Services even further by helping to pilot a new rent court lawyer of the day program to help save tenants from unlawful eviction.
The program, which as of right now doesn’t have a set name but will be a variation on rent court representation, will provide same-day representation for tenants who are being sued for failure to pay rent cases which can lead to an eviction. This one day a week pilot program will take place at the District Court in Hyattsville where volunteer attorneys will represent the tenants.
“Prince George’s County has one of the largest landlord-tenant dockets, and the vast majority of tenants are unrepresented,” said Quincosa. “A lot of them don’t know what the Maryland statute for landlord-tenant cases but Prince George’s County has their own code for landlord-tenant cases. So having an attorney there to provide invaluable protections to the tenant is very important.”
The attorneys can help tenants win cases in situations such as landlords charging an unlawful rate for rent and unlicensed landlords. Due to attorney ethical issues they cannot represent the landlords but will provide resources for the landlords.
“Until this program starts, for tenants, same-day representation is not available in Prince George’s County,” Quincosa said. “It is a new program and a new initiative, and with the rent court program, the cases are quick, and they’re fast.”
The new program, which will officially begin in the fall or winter, will be funded by the Maryland Legal Services Corporation who raises funds and grants specifically for nonprofit legal organizations such as Community Legal Services. They will allocate these funds through the Interest on Lawyer Trust Account program, which was established by state legislation in 1982, as well as surcharges on court filing fees.
“I hope it will bring stability to the lives of those who can stay in their homes as well as hope for those who can’t stay in their homes,” Belfiore said.