From the beginning, the people living in our country have valued the concept of justice. The Iroquois Confederacy’s Great Law of Peace (which inspired portions of the U.S. Constitution) included the principle of righteousness, meaning people must treat each other fairly: “Each individual must have a strong sense of justice, must treat people as equals and must enjoy equal protection under the Great Law.” In the preamble to the Constitution, the phrase “to establish justice” is listed before “provide for the common defense,” a statement about priorities that is often overlooked.

We’ve all heard the phrase “If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you,” but many people don’t realize that isn’t true in civil cases, even when very important issues are at stake. And our legal system is too complex for most people to navigate on their own. In 1883, all of our state laws fit into a single volume; today, they span 55 volumes and seven paper supplements.

The people needing free legal help include people with disabilities who cannot work, people supporting a family on minimum-wage jobs, single parents and couples, elderly Mainers and homeless youths, veterans, tribal members, agricultural workers, recent immigrants and the descendants of immigrants who arrived in Maine 200 years ago. They represent a wide variety of political beliefs, religious backgrounds and sports team affiliations. They all have one thing in common: They have been confronted with a legal problem that threatens them or their family, and they cannot solve it on their own. They need someone to fulfill the promise of “justice for all.”

Waiting to help them are the dedicated staff of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017 as Maine’s oldest and largest civil legal aid provider. Its staff and volunteers handled more than 7,300 cases in 2016 benefiting more than 18,000 low-income adults and children in all 16 counties and representing clients in every district court location around the state.

Almost 3 million people used Pine Tree’s own client education and self-help tools (available at no charge at ptla.org, kidslegal.org and statesidelegal.org) to understand and enforce rights with common legal problems including divorce, housing, debt collection and government benefit programs.

An additional 4,000 people benefited from trainings and presentations in which Pine Tree staff participated, most drawn from local Maine agencies and organizations that also serve our most vulnerable residents.

Funding to support this work comes from many sources. Pine Tree’s state appropriation is at its highest funding level since 1983, thanks to Gov. LePage’s support for its work with victims of domestic violence, homeless teens and veterans, and Pine Tree’s frugal approach to spending money. Other funders and individual donors value the program’s strong financial accountability measures, the high quality of services and the commitment and compassion that staff and volunteers bring to their work.

But the future of Pine Tree Legal Assistance is uncertain. Pine Tree Legal’s original federal funding source, the Legal Services Corp., has been targeted for elimination as a cost-saving measure by the new administration in Washington. Pine Tree is the only recipient of that funding in Maine, and it currently provides almost half of the program’s general funding for legal services.

That’s especially needed in rural Maine, where there aren’t other funding sources for the work and Pine Tree is both the first-resort and last-resort provider for low-income people with legal needs.

At current funding levels, the annual Legal Services Corp. appropriation to Pine Tree represents roughly $1.03 per Maine resident. Maine cannot replace the work that Pine Tree now does at that price.

When we say the Pledge of Allegiance, we close with “justice for all.” We need civil legal aid programs like Pine Tree Legal Assistance to ensure that Maine is providing justice for all, and not just to those who can afford it.