Librarians train on patrons’ want of legal guidance

Posted July 11, 2010, at 8:52 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Librarians are taught never to give legal advice. Yet, people facing legal problems often turn to their local libraries before calling an attorney.

The first in a series of programs to train Maine librarians to help patrons get access to legal information without offering legal advice will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, July 15, at the Bangor Public Library.

Training will address issues such as where to find legal information on the Internet, how to direct individuals to appropriate legal support, and the ethical line between providing information and giving advice.

The other sessions will be held later this summer in Portland, Lewiston and Presque Isle. The training in Aroostook County will be held Aug. 19 at the Mark & Emily Turner Memorial Library.

About 75 percent of Mainers now represent themselves in court, according to the state judiciary’s annual report. A survey last fall conducted by Maine’s six legal service providers showed that those organizations were able to serve just 24 percent of the people who sought and qualified for their services.

The training sessions are the culmination of work begun last year by the Collaboration on Innovation, Technology and Equal Access to Justice. Members of the group include Barbara McDade, director of the Bangor Public Library, Juliet Holmes-Smith, director of the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, Kathleen Caldwell, website coordinator for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, and Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Andrew Mead.

Reference librarians in Bangor were the first to work with PTLA to improve their skills at answering questions about the law. Divorce, child custody and property boundaries are the legal topics that come up most often, Jim Riordan, a research librarian in Bangor, told the Bangor Daily News last year.

Reports on the future of Maine’s court system published over the past 20 years have recommended that information kiosks be placed in each of the state’s courthouses to help residents navigate the legal system. The state has never been able to afford them, Mead said last year. Mead was a Superior Court judge before being appointed to the Law Court in 2007.

“I think there is a profound need for information,” he said last year. “I’ve watched people struggle with the procedural complexities of the law. They need something that is accessible that can provide them with some quick answers.”

Funding for the sessions this summer was provided by a $1,000 grant from the National Center for State Courts.

Individuals facing jail time on criminal charges have a right to be represented by an attorney if they cannot afford one. A similar right in civil matters such as divorce, evictions, boundary disputes, small claims and other legal matters does not exist.

“A large portion of our population, including the middle class, are priced out of using lawyers, so they represent themselves,” Mead has said.

Later this year, two libraries in the state, one in an urban and the other in a rural location, will begin to hold walk-in legal clinics with volunteer lawyers as part of pilot project to improve access to justice for Mainers, according to the Justice Action Group.

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