LePage transfers funds so lawyers representing poor defendants can get paid after all

Posted June 14, 2012, at 1:44 p.m.
Last modified June 14, 2012, at 6:48 p.m.
Paul LePage
AP
Paul LePage

AUGUSTA, Maine — Attorneys who represented indigent defendants will get paid this month thanks to Gov. Paul LePage, who announced Thursday that he was transferring $913,890 to the Maine Commission for Indigent Legal Services to cover budget shortfalls.

Without this action, attorneys who represent Mainers who cannot hire a lawyer would have gone five weeks without getting paid for legal services provided, according to a press release from the governor’s office.

“We can no longer afford to be a government that delays payments to those who provide services to Maine people,” LePage said in a statement. “Indigent legal services are important, as are our hospitals and medical providers. Paying our bills is a priority of my administration.”

John Pelletier, executive director of the commission, said Thursday in a telephone interview that he expected checks would be mailed Friday.

“The governor’s action to cover the commission’s shortfall is great and welcome news,” Indigent Services Commission Chairman Ron Schneider. “I want to thank the governor for his support and his recognition of the value and importance of the work done by assigned counsel. This money means a great deal to the small-business people who provide an essential and constitutionally required service for the state.”

On Monday, LePage authorized the transfer of $164,800 in unallocated funds from the State’s Contingency Account, according to the press release. The State Contingency Fund is a General Fund program established for use by the governor as he deems necessary.

Another $750,000 was transferred Tuesday from projected personnel services balances in Maine Revenue Service for the fiscal year that ends June 30, the release said. According to state law, the governor may access additional funds from personnel services balances if the funds remaining in the contingency account are not sufficient.

The budget shortfall for the commission was the result of a rise in the cost of legal services rendered as well as a higher-than-projected number of cases, the release said.

The commission projected it would handle 25,041 cases between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011, the governor’s office said. The actual number of cases for which attorneys sought payment for fiscal year 2011 was 26,601. The cost per case also increased from an average of $389.63 to $405.30 last year.

While the infusion of cash solves this year’s budget problem and lets the commission begin the new fiscal year without a deficit, it does not solve the looming problem that indigent legal defense is underfunded for fiscal year 2013, Pelletier said Thursday. The Legislature passed a budget allocating $10 million to the commission, but it will take $11.2 million to provide mandated legal services to Maine’s poor, he said.

Attorneys contacted last month for a story about the prospect of not getting paid in June expressed more concern about the hourly rate of $50, which has not increased since 1999, than they did about delayed payments.

Pelletier said Thursday that he notified lawyers on the commission’s roster by email Tuesday of the governor’s decision.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, indigent defendants facing jail or prison time have been entitled to legal representation. That means lawyers must be paid by the government, either state or federal, that brings the charges. Currently, indigent adults and juveniles facing incarceration are entitled to be represented. The state also pays for attorneys to represent parents in child protective cases and people facing involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital who are indigent.

The state does not provide representation to people in civil cases, such as divorce, eviction, foreclosure or small claims, according to information on the commission’s website.

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