Law clinic helps people represent themselves

Posted April 18, 2010, at 9:39 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Sara Bentley knew there were steps she needed to take to modify the custody agreement with her former husband.

The Old Town woman wasn’t convinced she knew what they were or whether she could accomplish the changes she believed were necessary without an attorney by her side.

Bentley, whose real name is not being used, also knew she could not afford to hire one.

Thanks to the Penobscot County Bar Association Legal Aid Clinic, Bentley feels confident she will be able to file the proper paperwork at Penobscot Judicial Center and convincingly explain her concerns to a judge.

Bentley’s case was one of six that two Lincoln attorneys consulted on Saturday morning when the clinic was held at the offices of the Volunteer Lawyers Project at 61 Main St.

“Going to court can be very intimidating,” Bentley said after a 30-minute meeting with Patricia Locke and Martha Novy-Broderick. “Basically, I found out that I’m doing what I need to do and I’m on the right track. I just need to take it a little further.”

She said the attorneys also carefully explained the possible risks of seeking a modification to a custody agreement.

“I’d give it a thumbs ups,” Bentley said when asked to rate her satisfaction with the service. “They weren’t blowing me off. They took an interest in what I was telling them, and they found the positive instead of the negative.”

The clinic held its first session in October. Since then, it has been held nearly every week on either a Wednesday evening or Saturday morning. At each session, an attorney based in Penobscot County goes over six cases with people who have been screened for financial eligibility, said Jim Mitchell of the Bangor office of the Volunteer Lawyers Project. To be eligible, clients’ income after deductions may not exceed 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

As of Saturday, 17 volunteer attorneys had assisted 80 families since the clinic opened. Nearly 450 hours of volunteer time has been donated. The clinic is expected to have served more than 250 clients, about 60 percent of whom are involved in active litigation, by the end of 2010, according to Mitchell.

The economic downturn has made it more difficult for Mainers to afford to hire attorneys, according to information gathered by the Justice Action Group, an organization devoted to increasing civil legal services in Maine.

About 75 percent of the people who appear in Maine courts in criminal, civil and family matters are not represented by attorneys, Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley said last fall. Their unfamiliarity with the legal system and the process often slow down court proceedings and cause delays, she said.

A survey last year 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 County 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.

In addition, it often is difficult to find attorneys to take on free, or, pro bono cases, which can take anywhere from a few hours to a few years. Solo practitioners sometimes simply aren’t financially able to take on clients who can’t pay them, Mitchell said. While providing free legal services is not a requirement of being a lawyer, it is strongly encouraged.

The Penobscot County Bar Association Legal Aid Clinic set out to meet the legal needs of low-income Penobscot County residents and the attorneys who practice there.

“I decided to come down with Pat [Locke] today who had done the clinic before,” Novy-Broderick said Saturday between consultations. “This a great way to serve people, and it’s a perfect time for me because I don’t have to take time away from my practice to do it.

“This is a really nice set-up here,” the attorney said of the of Volunteer Lawyers Project’s office, located on the same floor of the Coe Building as Pine Tree Legal Assistance. “I have every resource I have at my office. They make it effortless.”

Mitchell is the only paid staffer working in the clinic. Students in Husson University’s paralegal program also volunteer to help with paperwork and take notes for clients during their meetings with attorneys.

Because of its development of and support for the clinic, Penobscot County Bar Association has been nominated for the 2010 Harrison Tweed Award from the American Bar Association. The award was created in 1956 to recognize state and local bar associations, which develop or significantly expand projects or programs to in-crease access to civil legal services for poor people or criminal defense services for indigent defendants.

Gov. John Baldacci and Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justices Andrew Mead, Warren Silver and Jon Levy have written letters in support of the nomination.

“While a 30-minute conference cannot solve their legal problems, clinic attendees always leave with a better understanding of their legal issue and the court process,” Nan Heald, executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, wrote in a letter nominating the bar association for the award.

“As a direct result of its service, the clinic participants are better able to present their position to the court or administrative agency in accordance with the requirements of that tribunal,” she continued. “In fact, court clerks and trial judges in Penobscot County have already recognized and commented on the improved efficiency of court proceedings when clinic participants are involved.”

If the Penobscot County Bar Association were to win the award, it would be presented at the American Bar Association’s August meeting in San Francisco.

For information on the legal aid clinic in Bangor, call 942-9348 or 800-442-4293 or e-mail jmitchell@vlp.org.

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