BANGOR, Maine — People with legal problems often stop at their local libraries to do some research before they consult attorneys. On Monday, lawyers volunteered to meet patrons at about a dozen libraries around the state.
“People just don’t know where else to start,” Clare Davitt, reference librarian at the Bangor Public Library, said Monday. “We show them where to look for information and that takes down their anxiety level.”
While people charged with crimes that would require them to serve jail time if convicted are entitled under the U.S. Constitution to free legal representation, people involved in civil legal disputes are not.
In an effort to help the latter, librarians and legal organizations in Maine joined forces five years ago to offer a program named Lawyers in Libraries. They decided to do it on or around May 1, which is Law Day in the United States.
The goal of the program, then and now, is to provide information about free resources, low-cost legal assistance and ways to work with an attorney to lower the cost of legal services.
Eleven people came to the Bangor Public Library between noon and 2 p.m. Monday to speak with two local attorneys, Kate Grossman, who practices in Bangor, and Mary Louis Davitt, who teaches at the Bangor campus of the University of Maine at Augusta and is the reference librarian’s stepmother.
The legal issues that participants asked questions about ran the gamut from family law to employment and creditor law, Grossman said.
“I was impressed with how organized everyone was,” she said. “They had done a lot of thinking about the framing of their issues. I was able to point them in the direction of what their next steps would be.”
A Bangor woman who asked not to be identified came to ask about a real estate issue.
“I feel more confident that I can do some research on my own before I seek legal representation,” she said.
Two Brewer attorneys are taking part in the program in that community on Wednesday, Katie Conner, director of the Brewer library, said Monday.
“Part of our mission is to bring information to people,” she said. “Not everyone who needs legal help can afford it. Some people just need to know what the first step to take is and others just feel overwhelmed by the process.”
Joe Ferris, a city councilor in Brewer, who has practiced law for more than 40 years, and Joel Dearborn Sr. of Holden, who had practiced almost as long, will be at the Brewer library Wednesday afternoon.
“Here, we talk in generalities,” Dearborn said Monday. “If we don’t know the answer, we try to steer them to someone who does.”
Lawyers in Libraries, which was first offered i n 2013 was 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.
Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Andrew Mead of Bangor advocated for its implementation.
“The Lawyers in Libraries program places lawyers in local libraries on Law Day, and occasionally on other dates, to assist folks in finding lawyers who will be able to help them at no or low cost and to otherwise assist them in getting their legal questions answered,” Mead said Monday in an email. “Although the concept is new and still evolving, early indications suggest that the program is well received by attendees. As the word spreads, we are hopeful that libraries may someday become the go-to place for members of the public to obtain legal assistance.”