PORTLAND — Dr. Jerome A. Collins’ March 12 guest column, titled “Maine Voices: No justice when cost leaves middle class without legal representation,” highlights the challenges facing middle-class self-represented litigants in courts throughout the country.

Without sufficient economic resources to pay for legal representation in often-complex and expensive court proceedings, and not qualifying for indigent legal services, people of modest means often are forced to “go it alone” in court without the assistance of legal counsel.

The incidence of self-representation in court proceedings has increased many times over in recent years, and the trend shows no signs of abating. At the present time, in approximately three out of four civil cases in Maine, one or more parties involved do not have the assistance of a lawyer.

Numerous studies – and simple common sense – suggest that litigants fare better when represented by legal counsel. Cases where lawyers are involved are more likely to settle productively; litigants have a better understanding of their rights, the proceedings and the consequences, and greater faith in the outcomes of trials. Cases proceed more expeditiously when capable lawyers are part of the process.

In short, the public needs and deserves better access to legal resources at these critical junctures, when life-changing issues such as foreclosure and eviction, divorce or parental rights and responsibilities, domestic abuse and other civil legal matters are resolved in court.

The Maine Justice Action Group – a coalition of legal services providers, the Maine State Bar Association, the Maine Bar Foundation, the University of Maine School of Law, the Maine Trial Lawyers Association and Maine’s state and federal court judges – has worked and advocated in the Maine Legislature for many years with the goal of securing legal assistance on civil matters (which includes family matters) for all of Maine’s citizens.

The Justice Action Group’s efforts have not been limited simply to low-income and elderly Mainers. Numerous initiatives have included efforts to facilitate access to legal support for middle-class litigants.

Improved rules for the provision of “unbundled” legal services – that is, focusing resources on just those events where a lawyer is needed – have allowed much greater access to justice, with correspondingly lower costs.

The Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, Court House Assistance Projects and the recently inaugurated Lawyers in Libraries programs are but some of these efforts. The Maine State Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service (1-800-860-1460) offers all persons, regardless of income, the opportunity to consult for up to 30 minutes with a qualified lawyer for a $25 fee.

In addition, the Justice Action Group has recognized the many “how to” resources that are available to self-represented litigants, including a helpful book about divorce proceedings, authored by Maine judges, and an enormously helpful website – http://www.helpmelaw.org – that includes instructional videos, legal services providers, checklists and court forms.

Two years ago, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court launched the Katahdin Counsel Program to recognize and honor Maine lawyers who donate at least 50 hours of free legal assistance to Mainers in need. Last year, more than 100 Maine lawyers donated more than $2 million worth of legal services to their fellow citizens in need of civil legal services.

The Justice Action Group applauds Dr. Collins’ call for attention to the plight of members of the middle class in their efforts to secure counsel for assistance in legal disputes and proceedings.

Just recently, the Legislature acknowledged the importance of access to justice in civil matters in Maine; a resolution was adopted in the Maine Legislature declaring March 4, 2014, to be “Access to Justice Day” in Maine.

Our legislators have demonstrated a clear understanding of the problem and the need to meaningfully address issues surrounding access to justice. If our Pledge of Allegiance to “one nation” that provides “justice for all” is to mean anything to the self-represented litigants of our country, it is clear that more must be done. We must all work together to ensure that justice truly is for all in Maine.

— Special to the Press Herald