PORTLAND, Maine — A conference designed to find solutions to potential legal problems before they reach the courtroom will be held today at the University of Southern Maine.
“Expanding Justice in Maine: Upstream Solutions to Downstream Problems” will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Abromson Center. It is sponsored by the Justice Action Group and the University of Maine School of Law, and funded by the Maine Community Foundation and the Sam L. Cohen Foundation.
More than 180 participants have registered, representing a broad spectrum of people from students to legislators, social workers, and representatives from the legal community, Caroline Wilshusen, who is coordinating the event, said Wednesday.
“The major goal of the symposium,” she said, “is to build a broader coalition around access to justice issues and to engage the broader community in finding solutions. We hope this will be a catalyst for thinking creatively around these issues.”
The seeds for the symposium were sown three years ago when JAG, composed of nearly 100 judges, lawyers, social service providers, and representatives from advocacy groups, was formed. Its task was to come up with and implement a plan to break down barriers to justice.
It was not a new idea. The group’s first planning session in March 2006 was designed to build on work done in 1990 and 1994.
Out of that initial meeting came a report, released in late 2007. One of its recommendations was to intervene “upstream” to solve problems before they turn into legal crises. Today’s conference was designed to give examples of how that is being done on a small scale around the state, and to talk about how to expand those programs.
Nan Heald, executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, said Wednesday that one example that will be discussed is the work Kids Legal has done since 2004 with staff at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland. The project, which Pine Tree Legal administers, could be expanded throughout the state with more funding,
“Many patients seek medical care as a result of social and environmental factors,” she said. “Kids Legal staff go to the hospital to consult with staff at the clinic so they can refer patients who may need legal help. There are common problems poor people have, and helping medical personnel recognize them allows them to offer patients more than [medical treatment].”
A common problem in the Portland area, according to Heald, is the infestation of bedbugs in apartments. Parents bring children to the clinic to get treatment for bites. Once providers were aware that Maine residents have a right to safe housing, they referred the patients to Kids Legal so its attorneys could take legal action against the apartment owner.
“We found that we were able to resolve [more than] 75 percent of these kinds of cases, where people had sought medical help from what stemmed from a problem that had a legal solution,” she said. “We’ve found this program to be a really effective way to get people help. We also found that about 60 percent of the low-income patients seen at the hospital had no idea that they had a legal problem or that legal services could be useful.”
Sen. Libby Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, will be on the panel discussing affordable housing and the $30 million bond the Legislature approved last year to build rental units and upgrade some of the state’s aging housing stock.
“Decent and affordable housing is an important part of a civil society,” she said Wednesday. “Children who live in safe housing are sick less often and do better in school.”
Others on the panel will discuss ways the judiciary and the private sectors are working to address the recent rise in foreclosures.
A session on building economic security for the work force will include examples of how employers are working to pay a living wage and provide health care, what workers’ rights are and what kinds of help is available to workers.
“We want to engage attendees in generating policy ideas to strengthen and improve the ability of low-wage workers to make ends meet,” Christopher “Kit” St. John of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, who will moderate the session, said Wednesday.
The keynote speaker will be Peter Edelman, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He will discuss the initial vision for the role of civil legal aid in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the challenges of implementation. He will link that history to current best practices in upstream intervention.
Leaders in Maine’s efforts to increase access over the past 40 years will discuss past accomplishments and current challenges. Panelists will include Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Susan Calkins, Christine Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice Partners and Heald.
Another panel will discuss the ways the growing immigrant populations, particularly in southern Maine, can be served. Camille Holmes Wood of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and Susan Bryant, a professor at City University of New York School of Law, will outline steps that public and private agencies, courts, attorneys and others can take to reach and benefit racial cultural minorities.
For more information, visit http://mainelaw.edu/news/conferences/justice.html.