May 26, 2018
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Justice Action Group report says legal services in jeopardy

Contributed photo | BDN
Contributed photo | BDN
Justice Andrew Mead
By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Just one in every five people who qualifies for legal aid in Maine is able to receive services because of inadequate funding, according to an advocacy group.

The Justice Action Group, which promotes access to justice in civil matters, will hold an informational program at the State House from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday.

A recent report, “ The State of Access to Civil Justice in Maine,” found that a recent decline in state and federal funding for legal aid programs has result in fewer people receiving services despite an increase in demand, according to a press release issued last week by JAG.

“The report indicates that in Maine today, the promise of equal access to justice is truly at risk,” the press release said.

In 1990, the Maine Commission on Legal Needs found that legal aid providers were serving 23 percent of those who qualified. That figure had risen to 24 percent by 2009 but dropped to 20 percent in 2012.

The state’s legal aid organizations, which number nearly a dozen, are funded through a combination of federal money, state funds and grants. Funding has dropped 29 percent in recent years due, in part, to low interest rates on Lawyers Trust Accounts and a drop in money collected by the Maine Civil Legal Services Fund.

Revenue for the state’s legal services fund comes from the collection of seven percent of all the fees collected each year by the judiciary and from a $10 surcharge on every civil fine, penalty and forfeiture imposed by Maine judges. Those amounts were set by the Legislature in 2005.

“With decreases in funding and staffing, the total number of people served by Maine’s major legal aid providers has decreased by nearly 10 percent,” the JAG press release said. “During this time, the number of people in poverty in Maine increased by 15 percent, resulting in a corresponding increase in a need for civil legal service.”

JAG is not seeking more funding this year, according to Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Andrew Mead, chairman of JAG.

Many people mistakenly believe that a lawyer will be appointed to represent them in civil legal disputes,” Mead said. “Unfortunately the reality is that despite the increasingly complex world of civil cases, people are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney in most instances, such as when they are faced with the loss of a child in a custody dispute, or in cases involving domestic violence or elder abuse.

“If they cannot afford an attorney, they are left to wade through these issues alone,” he said. “Low-income families need legal aid to help them navigate the system smoothly and participate effectively, without causing undue strain on the family and the court system.”


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