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H. Lowell Brown of Bath is the president of the Maine Justice Foundation.
The principle that we are a nation of laws with liberty and justice for all is deeply ingrained in our national culture, just as the guarantee of equal justice through law is memorialized for all who enter the Supreme Court of the United States.
It is this aspiration to justice through law that defines us as a free people, and it is this foundational principle that we celebrated on Access to Justice Day on April 13 at the Maine Legislature.
But the reality is very different, as events constantly remind us. While justice is not for sale — a long-established principle of our legal system — access to justice is regularly denied to our fellow Mainers who for reasons of financial resources or of education cannot avail themselves of the legal system to protect and vindicate their rights. This is a direct challenge not simply to how we view ourselves as a just society, but a challenge to the very essence of who we are as a community, a state, and a nation.
Maine is fortunate to have talented and skilled lawyers who provide legal assistance to low-income Mainers through the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Maine School of Law, Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, Legal Services for the Elderly, Maine Equal Justice and Pine Tree Legal Assistance, as well as lawyers who volunteer their services through the Volunteer Lawyers Project. These dedicated lawyers have been the sole source of legal representation for more than 360,000 eligible Mainers on matters involving domestic violence and sexual assault, child custody, access to healthcare, loss of housing, immigration and amnesty, and veterans’ rights.
Indeed, it has been reported that each year, the majority of the low income population of Maine face at least one significant legal issue, and the fact is that the resources of legal aid providers are stretched to their limit. According to the National Justice Index, the national standard for legal aid is a ratio of 10 full time legal aid lawyers for 10,000 people. In Maine, however, that ratio is less than two per 10,000.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this already critical situation in Maine. More Mainers are now experiencing loss of job income and hunger. Many low-income workers, particularly immigrants and people of color, who work in the health care, retail and food service sectors face regular risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Loss of employment due to the pandemic has had a cascading effect on, among other things, increased jobless claims, and homelessness. Hate crime and domestic violence have increased as a direct result as well.
As in-person communication between clients and lawyers has been significantly reduced, those who do not communicate easily in English and those who do not have ready access to the internet and electronic media have been virtually cut off from access to legal assistance and the courts. The reopening of the courts threatens an increase in housing foreclosures, while the backlog of cases due to the pandemic means that access to the courts in civil matters including child support, divorce, custody, and protection from abuse will be delayed.
This is all to say that the need to support access to justice is acute.
We must strive together to realize the promise of equal justice through law, assuring the protection of everyone’s rights regardless of social or financial circumstances by guaranteeing meaningful access to the legal system.