There is no role in which the lawyer’s responsibility is more awesome than when representing a client whose liberty is at stake. Mistakes are not only costly to our clients, but to our community as a whole. Properly representing these clients requires a substantial amount of experience, training and skill.

Your Aug. 3 editorial (“Don’t make a federal case about new legal system”) underplays the importance of that role.

Historically, Maine has required no experience, provided zero training and had no way to measure the skill of court-appointed attorneys. Little more than a license to practice law was required to be appointed to cases by the court. There was little concern about the lack of standards. Too many outside the system viewed representing the poor as merely a way to gain experience or to start a legal career. That, in theory, should have changed with the advent of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

The commission was born out of financial crisis. Judicial conflicts of interest were an effective argument to free the judiciary from the misplaced responsibility for indigent defense. Luckily, the Legislature listened to the judiciary and others concerned about quality when drafting the legislation. As a result, the commission is required to have standards and qualifications which “ensure that attorneys are qualified and capable of providing quality representation” in assigned cases.

Today, however, we have no such standards or meaningful qualifications. As a result, our poor and most vulnerable will continue to rely on “the luck of the draw” until the standards are in place. This need not have been the case.

The law that formed the commission was enacted in June 2009. While the commission is underfunded and understaffed, it has the support of numerous legal associations and volunteers. It has had more than enough time and resources to, at least, have had interim standards in place before July 1, 2010. The failure to do so is a fair, but not fatal, criticism of the first 11 months of the commission system.


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