PORTLAND – May is the month we celebrate the rule of law and the individual liberty it guarantees by marking Law Day on May 1.
This Law Day, we continue to experience an economic recession that has dramatically increased the need for civil legal services in Maine.
In the midst of this growing unmet need, I am reminded of an expression from 19th century eastern Europe: “If a man puts his hand in front of his eyes, all he sees is his hand. Only if he moves his hand does he see the mountains and other wonders.”
If we look at nothing but the growing need for civil legal services and the strained budgets faced by Maine’s legal aid providers and courts, we’d have every reason to feel overwhelmed.
Civil justice, especially as it relates to the poor and other vulnerable populations, is in crisis. That’s the hand in front of our eyes.
But if we look beyond the immediate crisis, we can see how it has inspired a variety of collaborative and creative responses. There are numerous examples.
Maine’s Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) has established courthouse-based assistance programs to help guide the hundreds of people who enter Maine’s courts each week without the benefit of an attorney.
This program harnesses the great tradition of Maine’s private lawyers providing free, pro bono legal services toward acute needs: child custody, domestic violence and housing. The lawyers are assisted by students from Bates, Bowdoin and USM.
Maine Attorneys Saving Homes (MASH) is a joint effort of Pine Tree Legal Assistance and the VLP. It provides training and support for dozens of private attorneys who have volunteered to help homeowners work with their lenders to reach agreements that will reduce the number of foreclosures.
The Penobscot Bar Association has launched a free, general civil legal clinic once a week in Bangor. Area residents with low incomes meet with pro bono attorneys to receive legal advice about civil law issues. This initiative has been nominated for the American Bar Association’s annual award honoring the most innovative efforts to increase access to justice.
Victims of domestic violence in Portland, Springvale and Lewiston district courts are regularly referred to pro bono “lawyers of the day” who represent them in protection from abuse cases. VLP organizes panels of attorneys for Portland and Springvale, while the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law supervises law students who provide representation in Lewiston.
Recently, Maine’s Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, working with the Maine State Bar Association (MSBA), sought additional volunteer attorneys in the face of a 400 percent increase in requests for immigrant legal assistance. In little more than a week, 12 attorneys responded and have already taken cases.
A new project of Legal Services for the Elderly and the MSBA provides pro bono powers of attorney for low-income elders and is developing plans for students from the University of Maine School of Law to assist elders facing consumer debt problems.
The Justice Action Group (JAG) has launched a statewide project — the “Collaboration on Innovation, Technology and Equal Access to Justice” — to focus on the important role Maine’s public libraries play as a civil justice resource.
The Collaboration has received grant funding for four pilot projects to train Maine librarians in web-based legal research and in referring people to free and low-cost legal assistance.
These and other collaborative initiatives benefit us all. A growing body of research establishes that providing low-income people with civil legal services has a positive ripple effect that radiates far beyond the person receiving the service.
You can study almost any area of civil law — housing, health care, family law — and find evidence that if a person receives sound legal assistance in resolving a court case or serious legal problem, that assistance indirectly benefits the person’s family, other household members, employer, community, local government and, ultimately, our state’s economy.
Even in these difficult economic times, we must remember that if we move our hands from in front of our eyes, there are wonders to be seen in the collaborative and creative initiatives of Maine’s legal community.