The newly signed state budget includes a one-time $4 million boost for a program that provides low-income Mainers with legal representation in civil cases – a big addition to the baseline $650,000 the program currently receives each year.
But the funding in the budget is significantly less than what the Legislature approved. Lawmakers passed a bill, sponsored by Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, that called for an $11 million investment over two years and an ongoing appropriation of $7.8 million a year – and was projected to help an estimated 10,000 additional Mainers.
Carney, an attorney who used to volunteer with a nonprofit that provides legal services, said she was pleased that her bill received funding, even though increasing the baseline funding would offer more stability to people needing legal help.
The need in Maine is great.
The National Center for Access to Justice recommends a ratio of at least 10 legal aid attorneys per 10,000 people living below 200% of the federal poverty line, but Maine averages less than two.
Steady funding would make a big difference, Carney said.
“I think the goal is to continue to add to the baseline, so we can get closer to that national justice index standard and make sure that we have high-quality representation for Mainers in civil legal matters,” she said.
While much attention has been paid to the state’s failure to provide constitutionally mandated legal services to low-income residents accused of crimes, advocates say a larger number of low-income residents need help when dealing with civil matters.
Unlike in criminal cases, there is no law in Maine that guarantees access to an attorney for civil matters. But advocates say that doesn’t make civil legal aid less important.
The additional funding is expected to allow non-profit legal clinics to help more low-income people address civil issues, such as evictions, domestic violence, financial exploitation of older adults, child custody and immigration issues.
The bill passed the House of Representatives by an 80-61 vote, and the Senate by a 23-7 vote. It was also endorsed by the Judicial Branch, which pointed to the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Investing in civil legal aid right now will enable the providers of legal services to expand their current capacity to respond to the growing needs of Maine citizens,” said Barbara Cordone, the director of legal affairs and public relations for the Judicial Branch.
It could also help with Maine’s court backlogs, Cordone said: “Having an attorney representing a party creates efficiencies in how a court can handle a case and allows for the faster resolution of cases.”
The funding will be distributed through the Maine Civil Legal Services Fund, which last year spread the money it got across seven nonprofit legal clinics, including Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Legal Services for the Elderly and the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.
Last year’s roughly $2.5 million in funding came from three sources: $1.6 million in pass-through payments from court fees, $650,000 from the state General Fund and $295,500 from the American Rescue Plan Act, according to the most recent annual report.
The program will continue to get pass-through and other existing funding.
Legal Services for the Elderly, which received about 22% of the state funding last year, helped about 3,200 people last year, said Executive Director Jaye Martin.
Martin told lawmakers that the nonprofit received about 125 emergency calls a month in 2022 – more than double the volume in 2019. The nonprofit had to turn away 500 people who could have benefited from legal help, he said.
Pine Tree Legal, which has six offices throughout the state, saw an 180% increase in requests for legal representation from 2019 to 2022, Executive Director Tom Fritzsche said.
The nonprofit provided legal representation to about 7,580 of the 10,330 people who requested assistance, he said, but had to provide limited legal services in just under one-third of those cases.
“Some people are crying because they have been in court for a few days and they do not know what will happen to them and their families,” Fritzsche said in written testimony. “Some people cry tears of relief when we say we can take their case and an attorney from the nearest regional office will contact them.
“Some people cry when we give the unfortunate news that we cannot help them,” he said.
Other organizations to receive funding for civil legal services in 2022 are: Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, Disability Rights Maine, Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Volunteer Lawyers Project.
The commission overseeing the fund has set a Sept. 1 deadline for groups to apply for funding. A public hearing will be held on Oct. 17.
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