On Wednesday, we will commemorate Law Day in Maine with the first-ever Lawyers in Libraries program.
At libraries across the state, local lawyers will volunteer their time, responding to questions, making referrals and providing information about affordable options for those who do not qualify for free legal assistance.
This program is one of several initiatives by the Maine Justice Action Group aimed at addressing the need for legal assistance for Mainers who cannot obtain it on their own, and raising awareness about this critical issue.
In many cases, Mainers in need of legal assistance do not have access to it.
Contrary to what many assume, a court-appointed lawyer is generally available only if a person has been charged with a crime and is facing imprisonment.
As a consequence, in countless civil cases — such as those involving family disputes, home foreclosures and domestic violence, to name a few — some of the people involved have never spoken to a lawyer.
Many cannot afford to retain an attorney, others may be unaware of the lower-cost options that exist for hiring an attorney, and still others may simply hope that they can get by on their own.
By one estimate, current legal aid resources in Maine are able to address about 20 percent of the need for legal assistance. And yet, having a lawyer is often critical.
Acting as your own lawyer in court has been compared to serving as your own doctor in the hospital. The legal process is complex and can easily overwhelm unrepresented people.
This can lead to uninformed decisions that have negative consequences not just for the unrepresented person and the opposing party, but also for children, family, neighbors, landlords and employers who are indirectly affected by the outcome of the case.
Legal assistance can change a person’s life.
Consider the example of an World War II veteran from Cumberland County who uses a wheelchair.
A family member took advantage of the elderly man, obtaining the title to his house and racking up charges on his credit cards. With the assistance of a lawyer, the veteran recovered his home and restored his credit.
Also consider the many people who are victims of domestic violence in Maine and who, with the assistance of a lawyer, are able to obtain protection orders, receive child support and break the cycle of abuse.
In addition, research demonstrates that the broader social and economic benefits of providing civil legal assistance to domestic violence victims outweigh the cost.
A national study that analyzed the impact of providing legal aid to victims of partner abuse found that “the provision of legal services significantly lowers the incidence of domestic violence” and may be the single most effective public intervention.
Existing legal aid and pro bono resources do not come close to meeting the current need. But that challenge should not deter us from launching creative efforts to address that need and to shine a light on the vital importance of access to civil justice.
Because local libraries are key portals for civil justice, the Maine Justice Action Group developed the Lawyers in Libraries initiative to provide free information to the public and to highlight the need for civil legal aid in Maine.
By bringing together the talents and commitment of Maine’s private lawyers, legal aid providers and public librarians Wednesday, the Lawyers in Libraries program will take us one step closer to realizing the promise of equal access to justice.
(For more information, times and a complete list of participating libraries, visit http://lawyersinlibraries.org.)
Jon D. Levy is an associate justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and the chair of the Maine Justice Action Group, a coalition of individuals and organizatons working to improve Mainers’ access to legal assistance.
– Special to the Press Herald