The state fund used to pay private lawyers to represent people too poor to hire an attorney on their own is on target to run out of money two weeks before the end of the year.

The executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which overses the fund, sent an email to participating lawyers on Wednesday morning, saying the money will run out for the fiscal quarter on Dec. 17 and that any further bills submitted this month won’t be paid until January.

“As soon as we receive the new allotment, (we) will work diligently to approve the backlog of vouchers during the first several days of January,” Executive Director John Pelletier said in the email.

The timing of the shortage announcement caught many lawyers off guard, leaving them unprepared for the halt in cashflow just before Christmas and the holidays, the chairman of the commission, attorney Steven Carey, acknowledged.

Unlike other states, Maine does not have a public defender’s office. It contracts private attorneys to do court-apponted work for $50 an hour, less than attorneys in private practice usually bill. “We have a small staff, and when they were running the numbers for our (monthly) commission meeting next week, I said get an email out,” Carey said.

Carey said he thought that this year, the commission was fully funded for the first time since its inception in 2011. Each year, the Legislature underfunds the program, leaving attorneys to endure weeks without pay for the constitutionally required work.

The state’s courts, however, received an unexpected increase in number of indigent cases. During the months of April to September 2013 compared to the first three months of 2013, the number of criminal cases rose 15 percent, protective custody cases rose 11.4 percent and juvenile cases rose 5.4 percent, Carey said.

Scott Dolan can be reached at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@pressherald.com

Twitter: @scottddolan