Proposed cuts threaten availability of legal services for Maine’s poor

Posted Aug. 07, 2011, at 7:38 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 08, 2011, at 10:24 a.m.
Nan Heald
Courtesy photo
Nan Heald

Pine Tree Legal Assistance will serve 125 fewer families this year than it did last, according to executive director Nan Heald. That number could double next year if budget cuts proposed in Congress are approved, she warned.

“Funding this year was cut by $300,000,” Heald said last month. “We were already facing a $700,000 deficit, so that is a loss of $1 million.”

The 2011 budget for Pine Tree is about $4.2 million, she said.

The U.S. House Appropriations Committee has recommended that funding for the Legal Services Corp., which helps fund Pine Tree and hundreds of legal service providers around the country, be cut about 26 percent in 2012. The Congressional committee recommended the allocation be reduced from the $404 million appropriated in 2011 to $300 million in 2012.

That recommendation was made before President Barrack Obama and Congressional leaders last week reached a deal to raise the debt ceiling.

Heald estimated that if the proposed reduction in funding is approved, her budget would be cut by about 35 percent.

“We’ve already lost six staff positions through attrition that we’re not replacing, including two in our Bangor office,” she said. “We’ve also lost staff in Portland and Lewiston we can’t replace, including a full-time foreclosure attorney.”

Heald said it was hard to track demand for services but in February, Pine Tree offices received 500 phone calls. Of those, half spoke with an individual or left a message. Out of those 250 inquiries, 115 cases were opened, she said.

“So, we were able served about 20 percent of the people who sought help from us during the shortest month of the year,” said Heald, who admitted the call-tracking was not a scientific survey.

Heald said Pine Tree would work to make up for a portion of the lost revenue by applying for grants but new funding sources were not appearing on the horizon.

The organization has earned national attention for work it has done to make legal information and court forms available through its website. Pine Tree, along with the Justice Action Group, Volunteer Lawyers Project and local bar associations, has worked with librarians around the state to enable them to better assist individuals seeking information about legal matters. Pine Tree also developed the first legal services website for veterans and their families.

Pine Tree is one of 136 legal aid programs in the nation that represent people who can not afford to hire attorneys in civil matters. LSC has estimated that the number of people who qualify for legal assistance has increased by 17 percent since 2008.

John Constance, LSC’s director of government relations and public affairs, told the National Law Journal last month that this is not the time to cut cut legal aid funds as funding from state and private sources also is decreasing.

“The proposed cut would prove to be especially damaging to low-income persons whose health and safety are at risk — the elderly, the victims of domestic violence, the disabled, children, veterans and others — by denying them access to justice,” LSC President James J. Sandman said.

Sandman estimated that the proposed cuts would case legal service providers to lay off lawyers and paralegals and force programs to turn away about 235,000 eligible low-income individuals across the nation.

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