Please, no wisecracks about lawyers. The need for affordable access to legal help is no joking matter.
Sarah Ruef-Lindquist, president of the Maine Bar Foundation, says financial pressures on everyone have prompted a look for help.
“Maine’s legal services community has learned that the most effective way to help is to work with each other and the private community to create solutions to the challenges we face with access to justice,” she wrote in a recent Bangor Daily News guest column.
Ruef-Lindquist cited several examples. The most widely accessed source of help may be Maine’s libraries, through a project called Lawyers In Libraries. The aim is to put volunteer lawyers in touch with library patrons who might otherwise not have access to legal assistance.
The Volunteer Lawyers Project has secured grant money to offer free seminars on topics of wide interest. The sessions are designed for low-income people, but they’re open to anyone. Most seminars are held by video conference, so that people in different libraries can hear a presentation, then ask questions directly of the attorney through the video hookup.
A video conference at 3 p.m. May 8 will deal with preparing for an unemployment compensation hearing or appeal. A session at 3 p.m. May 22 will deal with family law issues. Check to see if your local library is taking part.
The Maine Justice Action Group has been working to make events like the video conferences happen. On Law Day last week, JAG coordinated statewide attorneys’ visits to libraries, where people could meet with and ask questions of the attorneys. The sessions fill a growing need, according to Maine Supreme Court Justice Andrew Mead.
Twenty-five people attended the Lawyers In Libraries session in Bangor, and Mead said that “clearly sends the message that there are plenty of people out there in need of legal assistance.”
The judge said concerns about cost, or simply not knowing how to find a lawyer, keep many people in need of legal help from getting it.
Lawyers volunteer in other ways, including helping people deal with tough foreclosure issues. Maine Attorneys Saving Homes is a collaboration of the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, or VLP, and Pine Tree Legal Assistance. If a foreclosure was filed after Jan. 1, 2010, and the homeowner meets several requirements, that person may be eligible for a court mediation program — see the Pine Tree Legal Assistance website, www.ptla.org, and search “foreclosure.” You may also call the Maine Foreclosure Prevention Hotline, 1-888-664-2569.
VLP also offers a legal hotline, with phones staffed for free advice to qualified callers at certain times each week. Calls are taken 5:30-8 p.m. Wednesdays and 1-4 p.m. Fridays for family law problems. VLP and Pine Tree Legal work cooperatively to provide legal services to Maine’s tribal members. The Penobscot County Bar Association runs a free clinic dealing with family law, bankruptcy, defending against debt collection and other civil matters by appointment — call 1-800-442-4293 or 942-9348 in the Bangor area.
There’s a bottom-line issue at work in all this. In a report from the Maine Justice Action Group, the authors wrote of the need for “identifying civil legal problems where early ‘upstream’ intervention will bring about a resolution that avoids more costly and time-consuming contested legal proceedings.”
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