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Maine’s chronic shortage of attorneys for low-income criminal defendants has rightly gotten a lot of attention. The U.S. and state constitutions guarantee those accused of crimes a right to a speedy trial, a pledge that Maine is in danger of not fulfilling as the state’s program struggles to recruit and retain lawyers.
Maine also faces a critical shortage of lawyers to represent low-income Mainers in civil cases, such as those involving evictions, protection from abuse and discrimination.
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. But, too few will get the representation they need and deserve. This puts their wellbeing at risk and it adds to the backlogs in our court system.
As part of their budget deliberations, lawmakers will consider more funding for these needed legal services. Additional state support for civil legal aid would be a good investment.
“Civil legal services are at the very heart of the goal of justice for all,” Andrew Mead, senior associate justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, wrote in a recent column published by the Bangor Daily News. “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.”
Maine is currently meeting less than a third of the requests for civil legal help, according to a recent report. These services are provided by a handful of organizations such as Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, and Pine Tree Legal Assistance. These services are funded through the Maine Civil Legal Services Fund, which collects a surcharge on civil infractions and court filings and some direct state funding. Maine lawyers also give their time and money to this work.
LD 564 aims to ease this problem. The bill, which has bipartisan support, would significantly increase state funding for civil legal aid.
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 this criteria. LD 564 would bring Maine to about 3.6 attorneys per 10,000 people over two years and set the state on a path to reach the recommended number in 10 years, Mead wrote.
“Passing LD 564 and increasing funding to legal aid will, for tens of thousands of upstanding Mainers, transform their theoretical legal rights into actual legal rights that will protect them and their families in actual difficult situations. For these individuals, passing LD 564 may well be life and death,” Dov Sacks, a lawyer in Lewiston, said in testimony on behalf of Maine Trial Lawyers Association. “More broadly, by passing LD 564, you will send the message loud and clear throughout Maine and beyond, that in Maine — no matter how rich or poor — our lawful protections and legal rights are real, not merely theoretical.”
Improving civil legal aid in Maine won’t just help low-income residents who face legal challenges. It will also benefit the judicial system by moving matters through courts more quickly and giving some clients better avenues to negotiate resolutions without going to court.
This is an investment Maine should make.