June 22, 2018
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Highlights of 45 years of legal advocacy by Pine Tree Legal Assistance

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff


• Earliest caseload dominated by family law, rental housing, consumer matters — PTLA also handles some criminal cases that are not eligible for court-appointment at the time.

• Staffing grew rapidly, but there was high staff turnover (typical attorney stayed less than two years).

• “Test case unit” formed in 1971 to focus resources on legal problems shared by large groups of Mainers (e.g., debtors prison, right to counsel in serious misdemeanors, right to counsel in child protective proceedings, right of enlisted service member families to access welfare benefits.)


• Growth in client educational efforts to provide basic information to the public about common legal problems. Earliest efforts focused on consumer rights.

• “Do Your Own Divorce in Maine” first published in 1974.

• Significant focus on landlord-tenant issues, including public hearings on slum landlords and new legislation to establish basic landlord-tenant rights.

• Tribal land claims on behalf of Penobscot Indian Nation and Passamaquoddy.

• Tribe and major federal court case establishing “Jay Treaty” rights to cross the US-Canada border.

• Focus on PUC utility disconnect rules.


• PTLA hires the first attorney in the state specializing in advocacy for domestic violence victims.

• Employment discrimination cases on behalf of women in the police force.

• Special education advocacy increases.

• Administrative efforts to establish rules governing liability in car accident cases.

• Federal grant allows PTLA to establish a special unit to provide legal assistance to migrant farmworkers.

• Maine v. Thiboutot: U.S. Supreme Court case regarding the right of welfare recipients to invoke federal civil rights laws to ensure state compliance with federal statutes.

• Major funding cuts in 1981 reduce PTLA staffing by 25 percent.


• Federal case requiring higher box rate for apple pickers.

• Volunteer Lawyers Project is established as statewide pro bono project within PTLA.

• Beginning work to secure federal recognition of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs.

• Successful challenge to federal financial aid rules that would have reduced support for many Maine college students.


• Expanded work related to welfare changes, including job training programs and technical requirements for state and federal welfare programs.

• Yearlong study of legal needs by commission chaired by U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie finds that less than 20 percent of legal needs are met by the current providers and that Maine would need at least 280 additional legal aid lawyers to fully respond to the legal needs of the state’s low-income population.


• Significant litigation related to the rights of workers at DeCoster Egg Farms.

• Years of retrenchment with layoff of 12 positions in 1993 and 24 positions in 2005 primarily as a result of federal cutbacks.

• Launch of website in 1996 as a way to leverage technology and make info about basic legal rights available to the client community on the Web.


• Launch of Coffin Fellowship for Family Law in Portland office of PTLA.

• Expanded domestic violence advocacy statewide with funding support from several sources.

• Maine’s first statewide clinic assisting individuals with IRS disputes opens.

• Report on the need for changes in the use of guardians ad litem in divorce and parental rights cases.


• Statewide enforcement of housing discrimination laws.

• KIDS LEGAL launches, providing statewide legal services for children and youth, especially related to educational issues.

• Increased advocacy to prevent homelessness and to assist the homeless move into stable housing situations, beginning with a new partnership with a homeless shelter in York County.


• Updated study of legal needs in Maine finds that the gap has worsened. Pine Tree and Volunteer Lawyers Project are meeting only 15 percent of demand for assistance even though staffing is at highest point since 1993.

• Launch of statewide foreclosure defense project, leading to the national “robo-signing” scandal in 2010.

• Launch of www.statesidelegal.org as national clearinghouse website for military and veteran households with legal needs.

Source: Pine Tree Legal Assistance

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