BANGOR, Maine — In looking at the 45-year history of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, executive director Nan Heald concluded that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“While there are some shifts over time, I was probably more surprised by what has stayed the same,” she said earlier this week in an email. “For instance, we got major press coverage for defending against a bank foreclosure in 1970 in York County.”
About four years ago, PTLA, the state’s first legal services organization for the poor, launched a statewide program to help people facing foreclosure. It is now one of about half a dozen groups that provide free legal advice to Mainers who need help with civil matters.
PTLA marked its anniversary this week with celebrations at its offices in Presque Isle, Machias, Bangor, Augusta, Lewiston and Portland.
“Our KIDS LEGAL unit made a big splash when it opened in 2004, but the early history of the program has a lot of advocacy related to education issues, including cases establishing the right to homeschool one’s children,” Heald, who began her career at PTLA in 1985, continued. “We’ve been prioritizing veteran-military issues in the past three years, but one of our first big welfare cases in 1971 established the right of families of enlisted service members to get [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] benefits, the predecessor to [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families].”
Originally organized by attorneys troubled by the lack of legal assistance for Maine residents with limited incomes, the program opened its doors on July 19, 1967, in Portland. It was funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity as part of the War on Poverty, according to information on PTLA’s website.
During its first decade, the organization grew to a staff of 10 lawyers who “rode circuit” to grange halls and local meeting spots throughout their geographic service areas from eight regional offices, Heald said Tuesday at the anniversary party in Bangor. The lawyers in those early years were generalists and handled many different kinds of cases.
Today, PTLA has a staff of 52, including 28 attorneys, according to Heald. That is 20 percent fewer people than worked for the organization two years ago.
Eight of them are generalists handling mostly family matters and landlord-tenant disputes and the rest are specialists, who most often are paid with grants from different sources. Some of those specialty areas include foreclosure, tax, veterans’, migrant and children’s law.
During its first year, PTLA handled 5,000 cases, Heald said. In recent years, between 10,000 and 12,000 cases have been handled annually with the help of volunteer lawyers.
Despite its efforts, PTLA is able to help just 15 percent of the people who qualify financially for services due to underfunding, according to Heald. Of the cases it accepts, PTLA is able to give full representation to just one-third of those who qualify for services.
“We turn away a lot of people,” Heald said.
Heald said PTLA offices are receiving more and more calls from people who have credit card debt that has been sold on the secondary market.
“People are getting calls from debt collectors and, in some instances, they are unaware of how much they owe,” she said. “The people working for the collection firms have no knowledge of the person’s ability to pay in many cases.”
Heald said Tuesday that she does not expect the demand for PTLA’s services to diminish anytime soon. She also does not see Congress or the Maine Legislature increasing funding in the near future.
“The law is definitely more complex than it was when we started and Maine definitely has more poor people than it did in 1967,” she said. “We plan to continue doing as much as we can with what we have.”