The Aroostook County Superior Court in Caribou. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

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Andrew Mead is senior associate justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. He serves as chair of the Maine Justice Action Group. 

We must not allow a lack of money to determine whether or not someone has access to justice.

Each of us is, in theory, equal before the law, but justice for all may be out of reach for those of us who cannot afford legal advice and representation.

Low-income Mainers who face criminal prosecutions are guaranteed legal representation by the U.S. Constitution. With a few, very specific exceptions, that right has not been established for civil cases where criminal punishment is not at stake, but the fundamentals of life and health still hang in the balance.  

Civil legal matters can lead to — or prevent — loss of housing, denial of health care or the opportunity for meaningful work, custody of children, protection from violence or exploitation, and the list goes on.  

A defendant charged in criminal court with domestic abuse is entitled to a court-appointed lawyer. A victim seeking an order for protection from abuse in civil court is not. The difference is glaring, and the numbers are striking. As many as three out of four people involved in civil litigation go to court without an attorney.

Civil legal services are at the very heart of the goal of justice for all. We must invest in both our public defense system and our civil legal aid infrastructure. Without access to legal counsel in both kinds of cases, those who can’t afford a lawyer are at an unfair disadvantage as they attempt to navigate the legal landscape.  

In Maine, there are more than 360,000 low-income people who are eligible for free legal services, and most of them will face at least one civil legal issue during their lives. Our commitment to justice is a commitment to fairness, and fairness anticipates legal representation in legal disputes.

The goal of civil legal aid is to provide legal help to everyone who needs it but is unable to afford it. Right now, that is not even remotely achievable.

Not a day goes by when we don’t see some manner of human tragedy unfolding in the civil courts of the state of Maine — people caught in the quagmire of conflict contention, and strife.  

Unrepresented individuals, particularly those in underserved populations, often come to court (or to a legal conflict) bewildered, frightened, distrusting and consequently often make strategic and procedural mistakes that prolong the processes and lead to very unsatisfactory results.

They leave those experiences alienated, cynical and convinced that the benefits of government and the law exist only for the affluent and the privileged. We must do everything in our power to push back against the disenfranchisement and marginalization that a lack of legal help gives rise to.

Last year, Gov. Janet Mills and the Maine Legislature took an important step by providing $1.3 million to support civil legal aid in the state. With justice at risk and so many people in need, that amount must be increased.

LD 564, “An Act to Improve Access to Civil Legal Services,” will move us toward meeting the increasing demand for help with civil legal issues.

According to the National Justice Index, states need 10 legal aid attorneys per 10,000 people living below 200% of the poverty line. Maine has fewer than two attorneys per 10,000 people meeting these criteria. LD 564 would bring Maine to about 3.6 attorneys per 10,000 people over two years and set us on a path to reach the recommended number in 10 years.

It is also important to understand that there is a significant economic benefit to the Maine economy as a result of the investment in civil legal services. A 2016 study and report concluded that the positive financial impact of civil legal services totaled $37 million statewide and brought in many more federal dollars.  

A commitment to justice for all is a commitment to equal access to legal representation, which can only be achieved through a commitment to increasing the capacity of civil legal services providers.