The Maine agency that provides legal services to indigent residents will increase the rates it pays defense lawyers as soon as next month after state officials realized $2.6 million in unspent funding had not been carried over from a previous budget cycle.

The director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services said it will increase the reimbursement rate from $80 an hour to $150 an hour, a step the independent state-funded organization and lawmakers hope will draw attorneys back into the struggling program.

Justin Andrus, the executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, speaks in front of Judiciary Committee at the State House in January. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“We are excited and delighted to learn that we can fund this necessary increase, and we look forward to implementing it on or about March 1,” Executive Director Justin Andrus said on Friday.

State officials discovered last week that there was $2.6 million in an “orphaned” account that the commission had used until the end of the 2019 fiscal year. Andrus said Friday that the commission didn’t realize that the money in that account hadn’t carried over into the account currently being used for reimbursing attorneys.

Until recently, Maine was the only state in the nation without a public defenders office, relying instead on a roster of private attorneys overseen by the commission.

But the number of attorneys willing to accept indigent clients has fallen in recent years from 400 in 2020 to 147 in January, leading to calls to increase what the state spends on reimbursing attorneys. That money goes beyond what lawyers take home, also covering what they spend on overhead and staffing.


The ACLU of Maine is suing the state, arguing that Maine is not meeting its constitutional duties to provide legal representation to people who are unable to afford an attorney.

Last year, lawmakers created a mobile public defenders unit comprised of five attorneys to take on cases in rural areas. Maine’s Rural Defender Unit began work in December, but it’s already looking for a new lead public defender after the attorney two took the top job resigned two months after he was hired.

The commission has been pleading with state leaders to provide money to increase the attorney reimbursement rate to $150 since last year, even submitting a letter to state leaders requesting a special session in September. Mills declined at the time.

Mills did include an additional $1 million for the agency in a package of proposed budget amendments for the current fiscal year ending in June. And her budget proposal for the next two fiscal years starting in July would add another $17 million to add 10 more attorneys to the rural defense unit and pay for a tiered reimbursement system for attorneys, who would receive anywhere from $80 to $150 an hour depending on the complexity of their cases.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee unanimously called for increasing the $1 million Mills included in the supplemental budget to $6 million so the commission could increase reimbursement rates before July.

However, the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee approved a package of budget changes late Thursday without that money, saying state officials had found the $2.6 million to pay for the increased rates.


Lawmakers still have to vote on a recommendation from the appropriations committee to transfer the $2.6 million into the agency’s current account before the commission can use it. The Legislature also must approve a committee recommendation to transfer federal COVID recovery funds designated for cases affected by pandemic-related backlog.

Once approved, the combined funds will finally allow the agency to increase the rates, Andrus said.

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted unanimously Thursday night to approve about $40 million in other budget adjustments for the current fiscal year.

The supplemental budget endorsed Thursday includes spending plans for the final piece of surplus revenue the state expects to collect during the fiscal year that ends in June. It is much smaller than it otherwise would have been because lawmakers voted in early January to spend the bulk of the projected surplus – $473 million – on $450 emergency winter energy relief payments for most Maine residents.

The supplemental budget includes funding for hospitals and nursing homes; a one-time, 1% cost-of-living adjustment for retired state employees; money to replace firefighting gear contaminated with PFAS, so-called forever chemicals; $10 million for a dredging in Portland Harbor; and scholarships at the University of Maine and Maine Maritime Academy.

The full Legislature is expected to approve the budget package in the coming weeks.

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