Since 1961, this country has set aside May 1 of every year to recognize Law Day to celebrate the important work lawyers do for the people of the United States.
Title 36, section 113 of the United States Code declares today a special day for Americans to consider their “appreciation of their liberties and the reaffirmation of their loyalty to the United States and of their re-dedication to the ideals of equality and justice under law in their relations with each other and with other countries,” and for “cultivation of the respect for law that is so vital to the democratic way of life.” Rather than celebrating today as a holiday, however, lawyers throughout Maine will spend the day immersed in the same task they undertake every day: providing access to justice for the people of Maine.
In the last year, many Maine families have weathered significant economic challenges that, not surprisingly, have caused them to face some kind of legal difficulty. Maine’s legal service providers, too, have confronted their own economic challenges. Despite the limitations these financial strains impose on us all, however, Maine’s legal service providers have been able to collaborate with private attorneys and with the courts to create a number of innovative and successful programs aimed at affording legal representation to all of Maine’s people, including:
• The Volunteer Lawyers’ Project manages the Court House Assistance Project, which maintains walk-in family law clinics in the Portland, Biddeford and Lewiston district courts. Two-to-three pro bono attorneys are available at each clinic to meet with family law litigants and provide them with limited representation, including help with forms, information about process and specific advice about cases. Undergraduate students from Bates, Bowdoin and the University of Southern Maine provide support to these attorneys by assisting with organization and intake.
• The Foreclosure Prevention Project at Pine Tree Legal Assistance provides direct legal assistance to homeowners threatened with losing their homes.
• Maine Attorneys Saving Homes, a joint effort of Pine Tree Legal Assistance and VLP, has provided training and support for dozens of attorneys helping homeowners who are facing foreclosure. Working with nonprofit housing counselors, MASH has also formed a group called the Maine Housing Counseling Network, which last year hosted six clinics designed to help homeowners understand their rights and responsibilities and to discuss strategies for foreclosure prevention. Four more clinics are planned over the next few months.
• Persons seeking protection from abuse orders in Portland, Springvale and Lewiston district courts are regularly represented by pro bono “lawyers of the day” during the hearings on their petitions. VLP organizes panels of attorneys who appear in Portland and Springvale, and the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, offered through the University of Maine School of Law, supervises law students who provide representation in Lewiston. These three projects also work closely with the local domestic violence advocacy agencies that provide court support services for victims of abuse.
These are but a few examples of the many ways in which Maine attorneys continue to strive for a better life for all of Maine’s citizens. These new collaborations have the potential to assist thousands of Mainers each year obtain greater access to justice.
In addition, the Justice Action Group continues to mobilize resources from the bench and bar to extend access to justice to all Maine people. After participating in a national training on public libraries and access to justice, JAG members returned ready to develop a collaboration among Maine’s librarians, legal service providers, courts and the private bar intended to facilitate access to legal assistance for those who seek information through their local libraries. A grant from the National Project will fund four pilot projects to train librarians in the use of Web-based legal resources and available legal aid programs. One of those projects will soon be launched right here in Lewiston-Auburn.
None of us knows whether or how Maine’s economy will recover over the next few years, but if history continues to be the best predictor of the future, we can be sure that Maine’s legal service providers and private lawyers will continue to “do more with less” for the benefit of the people of Maine.
Ellen Gorman is a justice on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. She was appointed on Oct. 1, 2007, by Gov. John Baldacci. Her current term expires in 2014.