If we didn’t hear it in school, we heard it on TV: that everyone has a right to an attorney and that “if you cannot afford one, one will be provided to you.” But this constitutional safeguard applies only to criminal defendants, making access to justice tenuous for those without the funds to represent them in custody, eviction, domestic violence and other high-stakes civil cases.
Standing up for disadvantaged Mainers is the goal of Maine’s civil legal aid providers, and a newly released report shows that their efforts put about $105 million into the Maine economy every year. Legal aid benefits not just clients, but also the community as a whole – making it imperative for everyone who truly believes in “justice for all” to be advocates and donors.
University of Maine economics professor Todd Gabe carried out the study for the Justice Action Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization. In 2015, Gabe found, legal aid led to an estimated $37 million in recoveries in individual cases, by helping clients access federal programs (e.g., food stamps), obtain income tax refunds and reductions, and get back money stolen via senior-exploitation schemes or illegal debt collection.
Legal aid services also enabled domestic abuse victims to obtain protective orders, allowed single parents to secure child and spousal support, and helped people facing evictions and foreclosures hang on to their homes.
How does the community benefit? Families who are able to avoid homelessness and domestic violence are less likely to need public assistance, transitional housing and other crisis services – thus saving taxpayers’ money. Assistance to domestic violence survivors reduces the chance of further abuse, paying off for employers in lower health care costs and fewer absences from work. And cities and towns save on General Assistance costs when legal aid groups help asylum seekers obtain work permits.
Civil legal aid’s impact was even greater for systemic cases: It ensured that Maine was able to attract or keep $68 million in federal funds. And because of the services, according to Gabe, 750 Mainers with hearing impairments received hearing aids they had been unable to obtain, while health care coverage was preserved for 33,000 Maine seniors and people with disabilities.
What legal aid providers have been able to get done is even more remarkable considering that the state could use a lot more of them. In 1990, the Muskie Commission concluded that Maine had to have the equivalent of 282 full-time civil legal aid attorneys to address the need for such services here; in 2016, there were just 40 full-time-equivalent civil legal aid lawyers in Maine. As it is, an estimated 75 percent to 80 percent of Mainers who appear before a judge in a civil case wind up representing themselves.
Civil legal aid providers in Maine rely on donated services, state and federal funding and private contributions, but it’s clearly not enough to meet the needs of vulnerable Mainers. No one should have to go hungry or homeless for lack of legal representation – so what are we going to do about it?