On Law Day, be thankful for legal service providers

Posted April 30, 2010, at 7:27 p.m.

May is the month we celebrate the rule of law in our democracy by marking Law Day on May 1. Many who can afford to hire a lawyer may not realize what it means when one can’t afford to do so. Justice that is inaccessible isn’t true justice.

We have many challenges in Maine when it comes to delivering justice. There are simply too many people in need and not enough resources. However, we are fortunate to have a dedicated and creative legal services community.

While funding lags and need increases, these groups continue to come up with innovative ways to serve as many people as possible. Maine’s legal services community has learned that the most effective way to help is to work with each other and the private community to create solutions to the challenges we face with access to justice.

These new collaborations have the potential to help thousands of low-income Mainers. Here are just a few of the examples:

The Foreclosure Prevention Project at Pine Tree Legal Assistance provides direct legal assistance to homeowners threatened with loss of their homes. Pine Tree Legal Assistance has teamed up with Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project to create Maine Attorneys Saving Homes, which has provided training and support for dozens of attorneys working with homeowners and nonprofit housing counselors helping homeowners with pre-foreclosure assistance.

MASH has formed an ad hoc group called the Maine Housing Counseling Network. In 2009, it hosted six clinics designed to help homeowners understand their rights and responsibilities as well as strategies for foreclosure prevention. Four more clinics are planned for the next four months.

MASH has also facilitated a Foreclosure Diversion Program with the state courts that seeks mediation before a home is lost to foreclosure. The statewide program requires creditors to participate in mediation and negotiate in good faith with a homeowner before a foreclosure judgment can be obtained. The program went statewide on Jan. 1.

As more people are in need of legal services, libraries have become a resource for information. To strengthen this resource, legal aid providers, the courts, and the private bar are partnering with the state’s libraries — led by the Bangor Public Library — to facilitate access to legal assistance for those who seek information by training librarians on the use of Web-based legal resources and available legal aid programs.

Legal service providers, the courts and members of the bar are working to provide more “limited representation” projects, including courthouse clinics and lawyers for domestic abuse victims, who often otherwise drop charges if the defendant is represented and they are not. The Penobscot Bar Association and the Volunteer Lawyers Project run a General Civil Legal Clinic weekly in Bangor. Area residents with low incomes meet with a pro bono attorney for up to half an hour for legal advice about civil law issues. The most compelling cases are referred for full representation.

In terms of funding, the Maine banks that participate in the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts are among the country’s leaders in providing premium interest rates to support the work of Maine’s civil legal aid programs through Maine Bar Foundation grants. While interest revenues are half what they were two years ago, this resource — along with the contributions from the bench, private bar and greater community — remains vital funding all of the programs described here.

As the need increases and resources are squeezed, now is the time for all organizations to look for creative collaborations among nonprofit, government and private entities in order to help Mainers. The state’s legal service community is doing just that and will continue to look for similar opportunities in the future.

Celebrate Law Day on May 1 by recognizing the creative and collaborative efforts of the legal service providers mentioned above, working together with the bench, private bar and the Maine Bar Foundation to ensure “justice for all.”

Sarah Ruef-Lindquist is president of the Maine Bar Foundation.

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