AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of Maine’s judicial and legal communities on Wednesday unveiled a new program to recognize lawyers who donate their time and skills to people who cannot afford to hire attorneys.
Once a year, the Katahdin Counsel Recognition Program will honor lawyers who donate 50 or more hours in free legal services, which is known by attorneys as “pro bono” work.
The program was announced at a press conference in the State House to coincide with National Pro Bono Week.
Maine attorneys rank second in the nation for the number of hours donated annually and in the amount of money individual attorneys and law firms donate to legal services programs, Leigh I. Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said at the press conference. The need for those services continues to grow, in part, due to the faltering economy.
“Too many Maine people are faced with navigating a complex legal system and trying to address pressing legal problems without the assistance of legal professionals,” she said. “The situation is particularly acute now, as the recession has caused many financial problems to become legal problems: child support issues, evictions and debt collection, foreclosure, to name a few. An increasing number of the poor and disadvantaged are turning to legal aid programs because they have nowhere else to go, but the legal aid programs cannot meet this urgent need alone.”
The U.S. Constitution guarantees people charged with crimes and facing jail time an attorney if they cannot afford one. There is no similar guarantee for individuals dealing with civil matters. The state’s legal service providers serve about 25 percent of the individuals who meet their income guidelines, which are tied to the poverty index.
“Our rough estimate is that 70 percent of the people in Maine’s courts cannot afford to hire a lawyer,” Saufley said. “Understanding and navigating a complex legal system without professional help can be very difficult. As we all recognize, access to lawyers in civil cases is necessary to make equal justice a reality.”
The Katahdin Counsel Recognition Program is the brainchild of the Justice Action Group, which is headed by one of Saufley’s colleagues on the state’s high court, Justice Jon Levy. The main goal of that group, which is made up of judges, lawyers, social service providers and representatives from advocacy groups, is to break down barriers to justice. One of the ways to do that, according to the group’s initial report issued in 2007, is to encourage more attoneys in Maine to take on pro bono cases.
The rules of conduct that govern Maine lawyers recommend that attorneys donate 50 hours per year to clients who cannot afford lawyers. That is why that number of hours was picked as the threshold for the new recognition program.
The program was named for the state’s highest peak for symbolic reasons, Levy said.
“Because it is one of Maine’s most notable symbols, it is fitting to connect Mount Katahdin and the greatness that it represents with the legal profession’s efforts to acknowledge the critical importance of pro bono legal practice,” he said.
Ralph L. Lancaster Jr. of Portland will head the commission to oversee the program. He said that there are attorneys who now quietly provide pro bono services all over the state.
“And I ask myself why [they do it],” he said at the press conference. “I think the answer is relatively simple. It is because they feel a real responsibility and a professional obligation to help those who can’t get representation and for the personal satisfaction they gain by helping people in need. They don’t seek notoriety. They don’t seek publicity. They ask for nothing. This program is intended to begin a recognition process for them and to inspire others to follow their course.”
The first awards in the program are expected to be presented next year during Pro Bono Week, Saufley said.