October 14, 2011

Mainer cited as ‘champion of change’

Nan Heald, executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, is honored at a White House event.

By Jonathan Riskind jriskind@mainetoday.com
Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON – Nan Heald made points she wanted to make Thursday as she was honored at the White House as a “champion of change.”

Heald, who has been executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance since 1990, was one of 16 people honored by the Obama administration at its Champions of Change event for “dedicating their professional lives to closing the justice gap in America.”

Attorney General Eric Holder lauded the group as “champions of justice.”

Heald was one of eight honorees who participated in a roundtable, moderated by Holder, about the importance of providing legal services to the needy.

“It is through your work, your dedication, that we are in the process of forming a more perfect union,” Holder told the group.

During the roundtable, Heald was asked by Holder about how more attorneys can be found to help veterans who lack financial resources.

Many law school students serve in the military before attending law school, she said, so that is one way to try to provide more services to veterans.

It’s also important to remember that while veterans’ disability benefits – often thought of as their primary legal need – are important, their legal needs run the gamut, from foreclosure to consumer issues to family and employment law, Heald said.

In an interview before the event, Heald said that perhaps the most important point she wanted to make “is that the work we do is so significant to our clients in terms of keeping faith with our promise to provide justice to all Americans.”

Legal aid is the way that promise is kept when a person with few financial resources has a civil case, since criminal defendants are given court-appointed attorneys, Heald said.

That can mean representation that keeps a person from being wrongly evicted from their home, helps a battered spouse get a protection order or helps someone collect a final paycheck from an employer, she said.

Now it is Pine Tree and other nonprofit legal service organizations that are under financial threat, Heald said.

House Republicans seek to cut federal funding for the national nonprofit Legal Services Corp., which distributes money to local legal aid agencies, by 26 percent, much more than the 2 percent cut pending in the Senate.

For Pine Tree, which has 24 attorneys in offices across Maine but just nine attorneys doing general legal services work, the proposed House cut would take $200,000 from its current $1.3 million Legal Services Corp. grant, Heald said. That would be a significant slice of Pine Tree’s total $4.8 million budget.

Heald said she was nominated for the honor by the head of the national Legal Services Corp. It was a “complete surprise” when she got word in late September of her invitation, Heald said.

This is the second month in a row the regular White House Champions of Change event has featured a Mainer. Last month, the event focused on breast cancer research and treatment and included Marguerite “Peggy” Belanger, a breast health nurse and Cancer Care Coordinator at Southern Maine Medical Center in Biddeford.

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:
jriskind@mainetoday.com

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