Commission that pays attorneys representing poor Mainers out of money

Posted June 07, 2013, at 5:55 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The commission that pays attorneys to represent poor Mainers ran out of money Friday.

John Pelletier, executive director of the Indigent Legal Defense Commission, said Wednesday that all vouchers submitted through May 15 would be paid. Vouchers submitted after that date will not be paid until July 1, when the new fiscal year begins, or when the Legislature approves the biennial budget.

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 $1 million needed to fund the commission through June 30 is included in the budget and has been approved by the Appropriations Committee, according to Pelletier. The Legislature is not expected to take up the budget until next week.

Once the budget is passed by both the Senate and the House and is signed by the governor, the money will be available and past bills will be paid, Pelletier said.

Except, Gov. Paul LePage has threatened to veto the budget. It will require a two-thirds support of lawmakers in order to take effect at the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

Two years ago, the Legislature passed a budget allocating $10 million to the commission for 2013, but an estimated $11.2 million was needed to provide mandated legal services to Maine’s poor, Pelletier said last year.

The level of hardship the payment delay will impact attorneys who take a lot of court-appointed cases will depend on when the budget is approved and whether there are enough votes to override LePage’s threatened veto.

Bangor attorney Jeremiah Haley said Friday that every six months there seemed to be a three-week delay in getting paid. If money is not available until July 1, the pay delay would be about three weeks.

“Right now I would say that two-thirds of my income comes from court-appointed cases,” he said. “It would be fairly devastating to my business to give what I see as a no-interest loan to the state.”

Haley has been practicing in Bangor since February 2010.

“This is not just a hardship on newer lawyers like myself,” he said. “Solo practitioners who have been working in Maine for decades say it’s a hardship for them too. We speak about this fairly regularly.”

The commission was created by the Legislature in 2009. Prior to that, the court system was responsible for paying attorneys. Most years during Gov. John Baldacci’s administration, there was a shortfall at the end of the year and attorneys went unpaid, according to previously published reports.

“The budget passed two years ago [and] was well below our needs,” Pelletier said Wednesday. “Last year, we received a supplemental appropriation and some emergency money from some funds the governor controls.”

Pelletier said that the number of cases assigned to attorneys also has risen.

“It is child protective cases not criminal cases that are on the rise,” he said.

Pelletier said that the biennial budget includes what he believes will be needed to pay for indigent legal services in 2014 and 2015.

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