A judge has ruled that a lawsuit against the state over legal services for poor defendants can proceed as a class action.

The decision by Kennebec County Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy means that the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine’s case can proceed with thousands of defendants, rather than just the five who originally brought the suit accusing the state of failing to provide poor defendants with adequate legal representation.

In a filing with the court, the ACLU said that the affected class probably consists of between 5,815 and 7,269 people.

The suit on behalf of the five defendants was filed on March 1 and the ACLU sought class-action status shortly after. Class-action status means that the resolution of the case could apply to the thousands of people affected by it, rather than just a handful, and avoid the need for dozens of suits with the same allegations.

The ACLU’s suit says that the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services isn’t meeting the state’s constitutional obligation to make sure that poor defendants have access to effective lawyers. It also says that Maine isn’t adequately funding its system for providing legal representation to the poor.

Maine is the only state that doesn’t have a public defender’s office, and instead reimburses private attorneys who sign up to represent defendants who can’t afford their own lawyers.

In recent years, fewer lawyers have agreed to be part of the program, saying morale is poor and pay is low.

Last month, the suit survived an effort by the state to have the case thrown out. Lawyers for the state argued that the courts can’t order state agencies to increase funding, but Murphy ruled that the court could find that the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligations.

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