AUGUSTA — A new program to publicly recognize attorneys who provide free legal services to those in need was announced today by the head of Maine’s court system, who said donated services are especially important in today’s harsh economic climate.

“The situation is particularly acute now, as the recession has caused many financial problems to become legal problems: child support issues, evictions and debt collection, foreclosure, to name a few,” Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said at a State House news conference.

“An increasing number of poor and disadvantaged are turning to legal aid programs because they have nowhere to go, but the legal programs cannot meet this urgent need alone,” Saufley said as she announced the new Katahdin Counsel Recognition Program.

The program’s basic function will be to recognize attorneys who provide at least 50 hours a year of free, or pro bono, services as a way to inspire more lawyers to help fulfill the growing need.

Exactly how that will be done will be developed by a commission of nine attorneys headed by Ralph Lancaster, whose practice is in Portland. Lancaster said some ideas for recognizing lawyers who meet the 50-hour milestone include an annual recognition event for them, and authorizing them to use the Katahdin Counsel label.

The announcement coincides with National Pro Bono Week, sponsored by the American Bar Association. Gov. Paul LePage has proclaimed this week Pro Bono Week in Maine.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Jon Levy said 50 hours of pro bono services has long been a “nonbinding, aspirational” goal for lawyers. Many lawyers in Maine have quietly met and surpassed that goal, Levy said.

But the need has grown, Saufley said.

“In Maine, as many as 70 percent of the people in our courts can’t afford an attorney. We’re very fortunate that Maine lawyers are so consistently willing to alleviate this crisis,” Saufley said, adding that Maine attorneys rank second in the nation for the number of hours they give to low-income and elderly people in legal services.

Understanding and navigating a complex legal system without professional help “can be very difficult,” Saufley said. “As we all recognize, access to lawyers in civil cases is necessary to make equal justice a reality.”

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