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Reportable Event - Henriquez v. Henriquez

On December 15, 2009, the Public Justice Center (PJC), along with the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, the Legal Aid Bureau, the Women’s Law Center, the Mid-Shore Council on Family Violence, the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Heartly House, and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service filed a friend-of-the-court (amicus) brief in Henriquez v. Henriquez, No. 81, September Term 2009, in the Maryland Court of Appeals.  Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow Monisha Cherayil drafted the amicus argument.

Ana Henriquez won sole physical custody of her three children in a contested divorce, custody, and child support proceeding in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County involving her husband, Jose Henriquez.  Mr. Henriquez had the financial means to hire a private attorney to argue his position in the case.  Ms. Henriquez, by contrast, was indigent and was represented at no cost by the House of Ruth Legal Clinic, a non-profit organization that offers free legal assistance to low-income survivors of domestic violence.  After making its ruling on custody, the trial court granted the House of Ruth’s petition for attorney’s fees under Family Law Article §12-103, which allows the shifting of legal fees in certain family law disputes in light of the relative wealth of the parties and the motivation for the litigation.  Mr. Henriquez argued, before the Circuit Court, the Court of Special Appeals, and ultimately the Court of Appeals that, because Ms. Henriquez did not herself incur any legal fees, he could not be required to pay such fees on her behalf. 

The Public Justice Center’s amicus brief in support of Ms. Henriquez advocated that poor litigants, who must rely on free or low-cost representation, should be entitled to invoke the fee-shifting provisions of §12-103 to the same extent as their richer counterparts who are able to hire private counsel at market rates.  First, the brief explained, the option of collecting attorney’s fees can serve as an important bargaining tool in civil litigation, including in the area of family law.  Family law litigants who face the prospect of paying their opponents’ legal fees have an incentive to settle and to avoid unnecessary or frivolous legal battles in the first place.  Exclusively preventing poor litigants from making use of fee-shifting statutes would weaken their ability to achieve favorable outcomes in custody, child support, and other domestic litigation and thereby tip the scales of justice in favor of the rich.  Second, the brief argued, attorney’s fee awards can act as a valuable income stream for underfunded legal service organizations and their availability can encourage lawyers in private practice to devote time to representing the poor.  If attorneys who provide free and low-cost representation can benefit from this revenue source, they will be able maintain or expand their services and help to ensure that individuals with limited financial means have meaningful access to the justice system.

Update: On April 13, 2010, the Court of Appeals issued a favorable decision, stating that legal service organizations can recover attorney's fees for successfully representing indigent clients.  The Court's ruling establishes precedent that will benefit these organizations and the indigent litigants they represent.

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