AUGUSTA – Outstanding bills from lawyers representing indigent defendants will be paid sooner now that the governor has stepped in with emergency funding.

But the $50-an-hour rate remains in effect, irking some lawyers who say that’s unreasonably low.

A note to lawyers from John Pelletier, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, thanked Gov. Paul LePage for taking action and said the infusion of about $900,000 means the commission has the ability to pay attorneys’ bills submitted since May 10, which is when state money ran out.

“We should be back on our regular payment schedule by early next week, and we will be able to maintain that schedule for the rest of the fiscal year,” Pelletier wrote.

Indigent defendants are those who face jail time and can’t afford an attorney, so they’re appointed one who’s paid through a state program.

Robert Ruffner, a Portland-based lawyer, had drawn attention to the shortfall and the almost six-week wait for payment when he withdrew from representing all his appointed clients last week.

Ruffner applauded LePage for providing the money. “I can’t remember the last time a governor went to these efforts to close up a shortfall,” he said. “Hopefully the commission will get this level of support next year.”

Ruffner, however, said he will not resume accepting court-appointed cases until the $50-per-hour rate of pay is increased. It has been at that level since 1999.

“We can no longer afford to be a government that delays payments to those who provide services to Maine people. Indigent legal services are important as are our hospitals and medical providers,” LePage said Thursday. “Paying our bills is a priority of my administration.”

The governor’s statement said that an increase in the cost of legal services and the number of cases led to the shortfall. In the 2011 fiscal year, the state estimated 25,041 cases would be referred to the indigent legal services commission, but the total vouchers claimed for services came in at 26,601.

The cost of the services increased from an average of $389.63 per case to $405.30, the governor’s statement said.

The budget for legal representation for indigent defendants was $10.5 million for the fiscal year ending June 30.

Scott Hess, an Augusta lawyer who represents many indigent defendants, is leaving his solo practice to join the Camden-based firm of Elliott & MacLean LLP Law Offices.

Hess said Wednesday he is not confident he could support a staff on his own if he is paid $50 an hour for indigent work. “Hopefully this action by the governor will reinforce the need and the importance of funding legal services for the indigent,” he said, “and hopefully in the long term, it will lead to more regular and predictable funding.”

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at:

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