Too many Maine residents aren’t able to get the legal representation they need.

No, we’re not talking about those charged with crimes – though we absolutely could be.

Instead, we’re talking about people who need civil legal aid to help them untangle a variety of messy problems with the potential to upset their lives.

Legislators are struggling to fix an indigent criminal defense program that they’ve allowed to fall apart. Filling the gaps in aid for civil complaints, however, is much easier.

A bill before the Legislature, L.D. 564, is asking for $11.2 million over the next two years, to be distributed through the Civil Legal Defense Fund, which supports the work of providers of civil legal services in Maine.

Unlike the criminal side, there is no constitutional right to representation in civil matters. Still, these organizations provide crucial legal aid to tens of thousands of Mainers in every county every year.


They help folks who otherwise could not afford to fight eviction and foreclosure, or at least to improve the terms. They advocate for Mainers with disabilities when they are discriminated against in housing, employment and education. They make sure veterans and others get access to the services and programs they qualify for. They help protect victims of domestic violence and sexual assault so that they can feel safe at work or school. They help people recover money they’ve lost through scams and exploitation.

Without them, more Mainers would be struggling to get by. More would be left without the resources they need to stay housed, fed and engaged in their lives.

Ultimately, that costs far more than simply making sure that people have access to state and federal assistance, which we know lifts people of out poverty and gives them the breathing room to build better lives.

For the people who get it, civil legal aid can be a godsend.

“A difficult percentage of callers cry at some point during their calls,” Tom Fritzsche of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, one of the state’s civil aid providers, said in written testimony in favor of L.D. 564. “Some people are crying because they have to be in court in a few days and they do not know what is going to happen to them and their families. Some people cry tears of relief when we say we can take their case.”

But not all Mainers who need these services can access them. The money in the state fund goes only so far, and while the providers cover a lot of additional cases for free, there are limits to how many people they can serve under the current funding.


And they are being buried in cases. Fritzsche said that Pine Tree Legal was involved in 12% more cases last year than the year before, and that the growth in the number of requests for help has risen even faster.

What does that mean for the people who can’t get a lawyer to help with their civil case? When it comes to eviction, landlords are represented in more than 80% of the cases, while tenants have a lawyer less than 20% of the time. It’s a gross imbalance that makes it much more likely the tenant will end up out on the street – at a remarkable cost to the person as well as society as a whole.

The same thing can be said about immigration. The Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project helps thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers each year navigate the difficult processes they face. It has a success rate of over 95% for its clients.

Without that help, immigrants and asylum seekers risk being denied refugee status unfairly, getting lost in the system or unable to benefit from the rights they are afforded under law. They won’t be able to work as quickly or be able to find housing.

When someone can’t get justice through the civil legal system, we all suffer.

Legislators may not be able to fix the faults with indigent legal aid in criminal cases this session, but they can solve this problem – and they should.

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