More than 60 lawyers will be in 43 libraries around the state Wednesday, which is Law Day, to provide resources and assistance to people seeking help on legal issues.
The Lawyers in Libraries program will be held from noon to 2 p.m. statewide. Lawyers will present information about free resources, low-cost legal assistance and, in some cases, make legal referrals. In some locations, attendees will have a chance to meet privately with an attorney about personal legal matters.
The program is the culmination of years of work by the Maine Justice Action Group, which includes judges, lawyers, librarians, social service providers and representatives from advocacy groups. JAG’s goal is to improve access to justice in Maine. Wednesday’s program was organized the Collaboration on Innovation, Technology and Equal Access to Justice, an offshoot of JAG.
“Access to justice is a fundamental right that we all believe we have as citizens of this state and nation,” Maine Supreme Court Justice Andrew M. Mead said last week. “But for many individuals, lack of access to legal assistance profoundly affects their lives and the lives of their families. The Lawyers in Libraries program will raise awareness of these issues and provide individuals with an opportunity to connect with legal resources at a familiar location in their communities.”
The state court system does not keep track of the number of people who represent themselves in court. Mead said that anecdotal evidence shows that the percentage has risen in the last 20 years. He estimated that between 75 and 80 percent of people who appear before a judge on non-criminal matters represent themselves.
“More and more people are representing themselves, primarily for two reasons,” he said Friday. “One, they don’t think they can afford a lawyer, and two, they watch television and see ‘Judge Judy’ and think they’ll just go to court and a judge like her will yell at one side or the other and they’ll go home. People come to court with the expectation that it’s a simple process. It’s not.”
Mead predicted Lawyers in Libraries program, funded by a $20,000 grant from the American Bar Association, would result in a win-win-win situation for all involved.
“When people are represented by counsel who know their way around the courts, it’s better for the parties, it’s better for the courts, and it’s better for the legal profession,” he said.
Mead said that by collaborating with libraries, he and others learned that the first place people go when they have a legal problem is their local library.
Bangor Public Library Director Barbara McDade said Friday that librarians learn in school not to give legal advice. Since the fall of 2009, McDade has worked with JAG and Pine Tree Legal Assistance — which provides legal services to low-income Maine residents — to help librarians understand how to give out information about the legal system and what resources are available.
“We want people to come to their public libraries to get information,” she said. “The goal of the program is to have a lawyer in some libraries around the state one day a month.”
Attorney Diane Dusini, who practices family law in Portland, will be at the public library in Bangor on Wednesday.
“Many people aren’t aware of the legal service providers available to them and aren’t sure when they need an attorney,” she said Thursday in an email. “The information on the internet can be confusing and in some cases, inaccurate.
“People are afraid that if they contact a lawyer, it will necessarily be expensive. And I think my meeting people face-to-face in my community in their local library and explaining the variety of legal service options available to them will help many people seek the legal help they need,” Dusini said.
Changes in court rules recently have allowed lawyers to offer what are known in the legal service industry as “unbundled” services. Instead for handling every aspect of a case, an attorney may help a client prepare paperwork in a divorce, for example, but not appear before a judge with him or her. Lawyers also might consult with a client about a foreclosure, giving advice on what steps the client should take, but the individual would file paperwork with the court and represent him or herself in mediation.
“It allows lawyers to limit the scope of their engagement, so we focus better,” Christopher Largay, who will be at the Bangor Public Library on Wednesday, said in an email Thursday.
“We essentially ‘triage’ a case and personalize the services to the most immediate client need. We also sometimes refer clients to other specialists who may more effectively help out, and direct them to additional resources and pro bono agencies for longer-term solutions if the need exists,” Largay said.
Largay, whose office is in Bangor, said he was excited about the Lawyers in Libraries program because “it connects lawyers directly to the community in which they live and practice through the central institution of libraries — a familiar and comfortable environment for most people. We reach people who may otherwise be unreachable.”
For information on which libraries are participating, visit www.lawyersinlibraries.org, or call your local library.