The Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, with the cooperation of lawyers in Washington County, is getting ready to launch a new legal aid program to serve needy people.
The Courthouse Assistance Program will provide legal aid to people on a walk-in, first-come, first-served basis. They will receive a free initial consultation with a volunteer lawyer.
People will be screened according to income level using the same guidelines as Pine Tree Legal Assistance and social service agencies.
The new program, which begins in September, will be offered at both county courthouses in Machias and Calais. The service will be provided in Machias at 1 p.m. the first Thursday of odd-numbered months and in Calais at 1 p.m. the first Tuesday of even-numbered months. The courthouses normally close at 4 p.m.
The lawyers who provide the service will give legal advice on matters such as family law, bankruptcy, defending against debt collection, probate issues and Social Security disability appeals.
“We’ll see how things unfold and make adjustments as necessary,” said Jim Mitchell, staff lawyer in Bangor for the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, who discussed the program last week.
The program is primarily for family law, which includes divorce and custody, guardianship and child support. It does not provide legal advice for criminal or traffic cases, small claims or protection from harassment.
The Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project has been in existence about 30 years and is a division of Pinetree Legal Assistance. The group consists of and recruits lawyers to provide pro bono (free) legal assistance to low-income people.
“We’ve been running the same kind of program in southern Maine for nine years, and it’s been very successful, and we’re slowly introducing it into northern Maine,” said Mitchell, whose office covers six counties.
“It only works with the cooperation of the local bar,” he said, and if there are lawyers who support it. The organization offers a similar program in Bangor in cooperation with the Penobscot County Bar Association.
Thirteen lawyers in Washington County have signed up to provide the service and will serve on an alternating basis through the end of the year. With that many, each lawyer would only have to donate his or her time once a year.
“So many people are going to court and cannot afford an attorney,” Mitchell said. “They’re pretty much lost.”
While the organization cannot fill the “huge void,” the program “makes it easy on all the parties if they can be a little educated about the process.”
People can keep coming back for more assistance, he noted.
Some people who go through the process of an initial free consultation may be a candidate for a full pro bono referral, he said.
Anyone interested in the service should simply go to the court clerk’s office, said Mitchell.
People who want to participate in the program should bring pertinent documents from the court or opposing party, additional information (names, dates, etc.), and information about income, debts and assets for all household members.
The Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project also can provide other services, such as schedule a telephone consultation with a volunteer lawyer, refer to lawyers for consultation and possible representation, provide information and self-help materials, and refer to other legal resources and agencies.
For information, call 888-956-4276 or 942-9348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.