The Maine District Court House in Rumford is pictured on Aug 20, 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

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Lauri Boxer-Macomber is the president of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association and a shareholder at Kelly, Remmel & Zimmerman.

The doors to Maine courthouses are getting heavier and harder for most Mainers to open, and we are all suffering the consequences.

Sadly, many people – including our friends, family members and neighbors – are slipping through the cracks of our state’s justice system. They are suffering from the impacts of impeded due process and delayed jury trials. Their safety, liberty and property are at risk. Their constitutional rights are threatened and violated, not just in criminal cases, but also in civil legal proceedings.

Right now, we have an opportunity to begin fixing the problems. LD 1326, a bill that provides for increased funding for civil legal services, is currently under consideration by the Legislature. Everyone who cares about justice and fairness should help it pass.

Most low-income Mainers face at least one civil legal issue each year that cannot be resolved fairly without help from a lawyer. These civil legal matters often involve domestic violence, housing insecurity, financial abuse, health care needs, insurance denials, employment rights and family issues. In most of these matters, there is no automatic right to counsel, and unrepresented people must navigate complex legal issues on their own.

Maine is fortunate enough to have a number of extraordinarily competent, efficiently run and very successful civil legal aid providers. However, these providers are simply unable to meet the needs of over 360,000 low-income Mainers due to a gross lack of funding.

Access to legal aid increases the fairness and effectiveness of our civil justice system for everyone.

The demand for civil legal aid services has continued to increase through the pandemic. As of October 2021, nearly one in four Mainers were having difficulty covering usual household expenses, and one in eight were behind on rent, according to a Census Bureau Survey. People are in desperate need of legal assistance, and providers are having a harder time than ever before keeping up with the demand.

Maine courts are also feeling the consequences of the legal services funding crisis. Cases involving unrepresented parties often take longer to process, consume significant judicial resources, and delay the processing of other unrelated cases such as those involving real estate development, commercial contracts, business disputes, municipal appeals, human rights violations and much more.

The injustice spreads through the system, making it harder for individuals, families and businesses to plan and invest in their homes and communities.

Further, the ramifications of this lack of access to justice crisis also results in additional strains on our public benefit programs, medical providers, emergency workers, law enforcement officers, social service providers and teachers. Vulnerable people without legal assistance often end up in crisis and needing other services.

The past budgetary allocations and funding sources for civil legal aid are inadequate to meet the increasing demands for services. Despite the hard work and resourcefulness of the judicial branch and the generosity of private attorneys and firms, there remains a desperate need for sustained and adequate public investment in civil legal aid.

The demand for civil legal aid cannot be met without adding substantial, ongoing general fund support to the existing funding framework.

The passage of LD 1326 will help bridge the access to justice gap in Maine. If the bill becomes a law, money from the General Fund will be predictably allocated and available to the Maine Civil Legal Services Fund. Civil legal aid providers will be able to maintain, strengthen and increase staffing and capacity to help more people.

In addition, civil legal aid providers will be able to use these funds to develop resources that can be used by all Maine people, and that will help cut down on legal costs, address backlog, and expand organizational and technological capacities.

By providing financial support for civil legal services, Maine can help to ensure that everyone is treated equally under the law and live up to our promise of equal justice for all. This critical reform will change lives for the better and all of us, regardless of our financial situation, will benefit.