The state commission that provides legal services to the poor may run out of money for court-appointed lawyers six weeks before the fiscal year closes at the end of June.

The latest projected budget shortfall for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services may delay payments to the lawyers who represent needy clients in criminal, juvenile and child-protection matters, as well as involuntary-commitment and emancipation cases.

Recurrent budget problems and an hourly rate that hasn’t increased since 1999 may drive some of the more experienced lawyers away from court-appointed work, say some people in the legal community.

“I’ve seen it happen already,” said Robert Ruffner, a criminal defense lawyer with a solo practice in Portland. “And I really think that the system is at a breaking point in terms of how willing and/or able attorneys are to still be able to do this work. They’ve been underpaid for over a decade and there’s no give left in the system.”

The commission knew at the start of this fiscal year that it would need $1 million more than the $9.7 million it was allotted for professional services, a category that includes fees for lawyers, experts, investigators and associated costs.

The commission requested $1 million in the state’s supplemental budget, an amount that was reduced to $400,000 in the budget proposed this month by Gov. Paul LePage.

The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee is reviewing the proposed supplemental budget this week. The committee is scheduled to review funding for the Commission on Indigent Legal Services today.

Accumulating shortfalls, along with a cut from a government streamlining bill, means the commission may have $1.7 million less than it expects to need for the fiscal year that begins July 1, said Ron Schneider, the panel’s chairman.

Schneider said Monday that it’s too early to predict how the situation will play out.

“We’re going to go up to Appropriations and talk to the committee about it. I believe we have been supported in the past by people who understand that this is a constitutional requirement for the state,” he said. “If you want to put people in jail, if you want to take away their kids — and they’re indigent — you have to provide them with an attorney. It’s that simple.”

In February, 2,042 cases were opened with the commission. That month, the commission received 2,277 vouchers from court-appointed lawyers, for total payments of $884,111. The number of lawyers on the commission’s roster stood at 504.

In other states, chronic funding problems for court-appointed attorneys have led to lawsuits, said Chris Northrop, a University of Maine School of Law professor and a member of the task force that helped create the commission in 2010.

“It is unconstitutional to lose the most competent attorneys. That’s what continuing shortfalls do,” he said.

The current hourly rate of $50 for court-appointed lawyers was set in 1999, a year after a study by the judicial branch recommended that it be raised from $40 to $60, said Sarah Churchill, president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

By comparison, the federal system pays $125 an hour and Churchill charges $225 for retained work.

The cost of doing business has increased since the state set its rate, so delays in payments are even more difficult for lawyers who are small business owners, Churchill said. “You can’t go as long without that money.”

Some lawyers say the delays can keep them from paying rent, making mortgage payments or retaining employees.

If the commission ran out of money and had to delay payments six weeks, “the results would be catastrophic. Layoffs would be a distinct possibility,” said Amy Fairfield, a lawyer who has 10 employees in Portland and Lyman.

Chris Ledwick, a solo practitioner based in Brunswick, noted that the $50 an hour that lawyers get for court-appointed cases doesn’t equate to $50 in a paycheck. That money has to pay for retirement savings, rented space, utilities, staffing and other office expenses.

“On the other hand, the consequences of having a $50 pay rate and not paying it – you get what you pay for sometimes,” he said. “You’re driving competent, qualified attorneys away and you’re going to be left with young attorneys right out of law school.”

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

akim@pressherald.com