BANGOR, Maine — Public libraries often are the first place people visit when they have a legal problem, according to Barbara McDade, director of the Bangor Public Library.
“In library school, we learned not to give legal advice,” she said Thursday, “but people often start here if they are getting divorced or having trouble with their landlords. We could never really do much other than point them to the statutes, so we never felt like we were helping people. But that is our role.”
A new subcommittee of the Justice Action Group — an organization composed of Maine judges, lawyers, social service providers and representatives from advocacy groups — is working to expand access to justice for Maine residents by coordinating the resources available online and at the courts and libraries around the state.
Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Andrew Mead of Bangor is the chairman of the group’s Collaboration on Innovation, Technology and Equal Access to Justice subcommittee. McDade also is a member.
The group, which also includes representatives of the judiciary, legal services community, the state’s only law school and libraries, met for the first time Thursday in Augusta. Its goal is to launch a program to:
• Train librarians statewide on the resources available for people in need of legal help.
• Enhance and expand the www.helpmelaw.org Web site created by Pine Tree Legal Assistance.
• Coordinate free legal service panels at courthouses in Biddeford, Lewiston and Portland with other legal service resources.
Pine Tree Legal Assistance already has worked with reference librarians in Bangor, according to McDade. Staff at Pine Tree’s office showed staff in the Bangor Public Library’s reference department how to help people navigate Pine Tree’s Web site to download and fill out legal forms. The group also has helped librarians know what they can and can’t say when discussing legal matters.
“We get lots of legal questions,” Jim Riordan, a research librarian, said Thursday. “Divorce is a big one. We also get questions about child custody and property boundary issues. But last week, we got one about the laws dealing with pet snakes in Maine.”
Reports on the future of Maine’s court system published over the past 20 years have recommended that information kiosks be placed in each of the state’s courthouses to help residents navigate the legal system. The state has never been able to afford them, said Mead, who was a Superior Court judge before being appointed to the state supreme court in 2007.
“I think there is a profound need for information,” he said Thursday. “I’ve watched people struggle with the procedural complexities of the law. They need something that is accessible that can provide them with some quick answers.”
About 75 percent of Mainers now represent themselves in court, according to the state judiciary’s annual report. A recent survey conducted by Maine’s six legal services providers showed that those organizations were able to serve just 24 percent of the people who sought and qualified for their services.
“A large portion of our population, including the middle class, are priced out of using lawyers, so they represent themselves,” Mead said.
Individuals facing jail time on criminal charges have a right to be represented by an attorney if they cannot afford one. A similar right in civil matters such as divorce, evictions, boundary disputes, small claims and other legal matters does not exist.
Caroline Wilshusen, executive director of the Justice Action Group, praised efforts to expand access to justice and disseminate information about the court system.
“This subcommittee is a key piece of the recommendations made in the [Justice Access Group] report that came out two years ago,” Wilshusen said in a statement. “By coordinating the resources available and making it easier for people to access the information they need — either on their computer, at their local library, or in the courthouses — we will greatly improve our ability to ensure all Mainers are afforded their legal rights.”