HALLOWELL — First established by a proclamation issued by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958 and then codified by Congress in 1961, every May 1 is Law Day. This “is a special day of celebration by the people of the United States … in appreciation of their liberties … and of their rededication of the ideas of equality and justice under the law … .” Each year, Law Day events and programs are carried out in Maine and throughout the nation.

If he were still alive today, Sen. Edmund Muskie would have celebrated his 100th birthday recently. With this in mind, it seems fitting to remember a Law Day from almost a quarter of a century ago.

On May 1, 1990, the Maine Commission of Legal Needs – chaired by the senator and known as the Muskie Commission – issued an action plan for the 1990s.

In a commentary, Leigh Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills and then-District Court Judge Vendean Vafiades described the commission’s report as a “call to action to all concerned with the growing gap between the need for legal services and the resources to meet that need.”

The Muskie Commission found that Maine’s legal aid providers were able to meet the needs of only 23 percent of the people eligible for and in need of their services. Unfortunately, the chasm between need and resources has not shrunk over all these years.

Several demographic factors affect the need for and availability of services for people facing complicated civil legal issues who cannot afford a lawyer:

In a recent report, “The State of Access to Civil Justice in Maine,” the Justice Action Group indicated that from 2009 to 2013, the number of Mainers living in poverty increased by 15 percent.

Maine is the oldest state in the nation by median age. This means that the number of lawyers retiring will accelerate and there will be more elders who need help.

The population is declining in many of Maine’s rural areas, which makes access to services more difficult for the remaining residents.

More immigrants are coming to Maine, many of whom need help achieving security in their new home.

As the need for civil legal aid has been increasing, funding has been decreasing for core providers of civil legal aid, including Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Legal Services for the Elderly, Maine Equal Justice Partners, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, the Volunteer Lawyers Project and the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, University of Maine Law School.

There have been two key sources of state-level funds:

Maine’s Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program has been a key source of funding for 30 years. Unfortunately, the program has been hurt by plummeting and stagnant interest rates – dropping from $1.48 million in 2007 to $757,011 in 2013, the lowest it has been since 1997.

In response to the call to action by the Muskie Commission in 1990, the Maine Legislature established the Maine Civil Legal Services Fund in 1991. State funds for civil legal aid providers from this source have declined from their high of more than $1.8 million on each in 2009 and 2010 to only $1.4 million in 2013.

Maine’s legal community has been persistent, creative, generous and collaborative in addressing the legal needs of the many Mainers who cannot afford a lawyer. One of several ways they have done this is through Lawyers in Libraries, a collaboration between the legal community and Maine’s libraries to connect Mainers who have legal needs with lawyers.

Law Day 2013 marked Maine’s statewide kick-off of Lawyers in Libraries. Across the state, local lawyers volunteered their time, responded to questions, made referrals and provided information about affordable options for people who do not qualify for free legal assistance. It was a great success!

Since then, this simple idea of bringing together lawyers and people who need legal help in the natural, comfortable, welcoming setting of the local library has firmly taken root. Good ideas tend to be simple. Programs based on simple ideas tend to grow and flourish.

On Law Day 2014, let us celebrate the continuing success of Lawyers in Libraries as one important way to help shrink that persistent gap between the help Mainers need with civil legal issues and the legal resources available.

Lawyers will be at more than 40 Maine libraries Thursday. Please contact your local library or visit http://lawyersinlibraries.org to find out whether Lawyers in Libraries will be offered in your community.

— Special to the Press Herald