Our View: Mills, lawmakers have an obligation to aid legal system for low-income Mainers
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Our View: Mills, lawmakers have an obligation to aid legal system for low-income Mainers

Last month we said that the state’s system for providing constitutionally mandated legal services to low-income Mainers, for years on the edge of emergency, had crossed over into crisis and needed immediate help.

Three weeks later and help is no closer for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services. In fact, it may be months away.

Whatever the reasons, that’s inexcusable. Gov. Mills and the Legislature have an obligation to fix this problem now – you don’t wait to put out a fire.

The Maine Commission for Indigent Legal Services holds a hearing by videoconference at the State House in Augusta to take comments about the state’s court-appointed lawyer system. To retain and attract attorneys, the commission is seeking $13.3 million to raise pay rates from a low-ball $80 an hour to $150 an hour. Christopher Williams screenshot

Yet Mills is balking at the suggestion that she call a special legislative session to appropriate $13.3 million in emergency funding for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which contracts with and coordinates the private attorneys who sign up to represent defendants who cannot afford representation, so that they can raise reimbursement rates to counter a shortage of lawyers.

According to emails included in a recent meeting agenda for the commission, the governor is concerned that the group has not made enough of an effort to recruit new attorneys, pointing to the lawyers who have passed the Maine bar exam recently as possible targets.

Mills also pressed the commission to consider the recommendations of Donald Alexander, a former Maine Supreme Judicial Court justice who asked that the indigent legal system loosen its standards for allowing attorneys on specific kinds of cases.

Representatives of the commission say loosening of the standards could be discussed. But it isn’t by any means a solution.

The standards were tightened in recent years after deficiencies in the system became clear. Going back now makes little sense when there’s a better response that would lead to a higher quality of representation.

The emergency funding would allow the commission to raise pay rates from a low-ball $80 an hour to $150 an hour, which Executive Director Justin Andrus said would keep more attorneys from leaving while attracting new and returning lawyers to the program.

It’s probably not the final fix for the program. We feel Maine should create a public defender’s office, such as exists in each of the 49 other states, rather than contracting with private attorneys. The state took a small step toward such a system last year.

But that’s for the future. Maine first has to deal with the immediate crisis facing indirect legal services. Open cases are stacking up in the courts as the commission warns it may soon run out of attorneys to assign to them.

If Mills or legislative leaders fail to call a special session, funding will have to wait at least until the next fiscal year begins in July.

Elected officials allowed indigent legal services to fall into crisis. Now they have an obligation to get it back on track – today, not several months from now.

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