Friday is Law Day, an event we have celebrated since 1958, when President Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as a time to reaffirm our nation’s commitment to a government of law, with equity and justice for all.
In these difficult times, more of our citizens and those escaping oppression overseas are seeking access to justice, and increasingly our legal and court systems lack the resources to help them. Whether it’s dealing with foreclosure and bankruptcy, struggling with access to quality health care and education, or fighting domestic and elder abuse, the numbers who need but cannot afford legal assistance to meet their basic needs are rising and the resources to help them are declining.
One of the boring facts of our justice system is that it takes money to make it work. Without financial resources, it is difficult to obtain fair consideration of one’s legal problems. Maine’s Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley has warned that our courts are in a precarious position. At the same time the providers of legal aid are severely strained.
One key source of support for legal aid in Maine is the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts Program (IOLTA) administered by the Maine Bar Foundation with participation by Maine’s private lawyers and banks. IOLTA is a process that allows for certain funds held in trust to generate income for legal aid and administration of justice programs around the state. IOLTA has provided essential support to legal aid programs over the past 20 years, but in this economy as business volume has declined in Maine and interest rates are at historic lows, IOLTA revenues are declining by over a third.
There is a bright spot: 12 Maine banks have risen to the occasion and pledged to help the legal aid providers in Maine by agreeing to become Prime Partners with the Maine Bar Foundation and to offer higher interest rates for their IOLTA accounts. These banks acknowledge the important role they play in supporting their com-munities, and have agreed to pay at least 2 percent interest to help the growing number of their neighbors in need. The Prime Partner program is described on the Bar Foundation’s Web site at: www.mbf.org/banks.htm.
Maine’s lawyers are proud to lead the nation in contributions to legal aid and providing pro bono legal services for the indigent. We are equally proud of our local banks and want to salute these Prime Partners and to let you know that banks in our communities are still operating with a double bottom line — building sound financial institutions and helping their neighbors.
Arnold MacDonald is president-elect of the Maine Bar Foundation.