BANGOR, Maine — A homegrown solution to a statewide problem will begin Saturday when the first session of the Penobscot County Bar Association’s new legal clinic is held.
Six individuals who have been prescreened by the Volunteer Lawyers’ Project staff each will meet for 30 minutes with Christopher Largay, a Bangor lawyer who is offering them limited representation at no charge.
He volunteered for the project so he could take firsthand information and “front-line experience” on how the clinic works back to the statewide committees he serves on that address access-to-justice issues. As an attorney who has taken on free — or pro bono — cases in the past, which can take from a couple of hours to a couple of years to close, Largay said he is excited about the new program.
“I think it’s a fantastic way to do pro bono work,” he said Wednesday. “I think we’ll be able to go in and give people immediate help without a long-term obligation, because that’s what pays the bills. I wanted to jump right in.”
The clinic, announced last month, is scheduled to be held once a week at the Pine Tree Legal Assistance Office, 61 Main St., Bangor.
More and more litigants are representing themselves in court, according to Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley. She said Tuesday that about 75 percent of the people who appear in Maine courts in criminal, civil and family matters are not represented by lawyers.
The clinic, according to Jim Mitchell, the Volunteer Lawyers’ Project staffer who is coordinating the new program with local attorneys, is designed to help people be better prepared to represent themselves in court.
“The goal,” Mitchell said in a recent press release, “is to provide clinic recipients with legal information they can use to assess their perceived legal issue and use [this information] to more effectively represent themselves in court if necessary.”
A recent survey conducted by Maine’s six legal services providers showed that those organizations were able to serve just 24 percent of the people who sought and qualified for their services.
Pine Tree Legal Assistance, the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, Legal Services for the Elderly, Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Volunteer Lawyers Project participated in the survey.
Income guidelines used by most providers limit service to individuals whose household income after certain deductions is at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines or 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines before deductions.
The problem in providing legal services in 2009 to Maine’s poor is twofold, according to Nan Heald, director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance and the organizer of the survey. Demand for legal aid services is rising while funding for legal aid providers is dropping.
During the first six months of the year, the legal aid providers handled almost 13,700 cases, putting them on track for a 30 percent increase in 2009 over 2008, Heald said earlier this week. In Penobscot County alone, cases handled between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2009, by Pine Tree Legal Assistance and Volunteer Lawyers’ Project increased to 920 from 797 during the same eight months in 2008, she said.
Money for legal services comes from four main sources — federal and state funds, the Campaign for Justice, run by the Maine Bar Foundation, and the Interest on Lawyer’s Trust Accounts, or IOLTA, program.
While federal funding has increased over the past three years, Heald said, it has not made up for the decrease in state funding. State funding for Pine Tree Legal Assistance was $264,000 last year. Totals for all legal service providers were not available Wednesday. Federal funds for next year have not yet been approved.
The Campaign For Justice, which solicits money from law firms and private attorneys, raised about $400,000 last year, according to the Maine Bar Foundation. Donations this year are running about 17 percent lower, but Bruce Mallonee, the Bangor lawyer heading up this year’s campaign, has said he’s hopeful that better economic news in the fourth quarter will allow donors to match or exceed last year’s total.
Low interest rates have hurt the IOLTA fund, according to Calien Lewis, the foundation’s executive director.
The kinds of cases Largay will deal with Saturday include housing, unemployment, bankruptcy, eviction and family law, Mitchell said Thursday.