A vision for a better civil justice system

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Justice should be affordable, equitable, efficient and effective.

Law Day is May 1. We celebrate that day in America because we are thankful for the tradition of freedom, justice and equality that the laws of our land established and uphold. Here in Maine, we have used the occasion to focus our community on the gap between the promise and the reality of justice for all.

As I write this year, the snapshot of legal need reveals a grim reality: every month an average of 3,606 people call legal aid offices. Only 496 callers get a lawyer or advocate; 1,355 get some brief service or information and 1,755 are turned away. Only 1 in 4 low-income households with a legal need can be served.

We at the Maine Bar Foundation believe this is unacceptable. Recently we joined others as the legal community committed itself to an initiative to establish a vision of a civil justice system in Maine. On March 21, 95 members of the private bar, legal aid lawyers, social workers, judges and consumers met to discuss the tenants of this vision and to develop a plan for attaining it. Hundreds of individuals have submitted survey responses and suggestions for inclusion in the process. Working groups are assembling to respond to this need.

Today we share with you our vision and our determination to make it a vision for all. We hope to hear from you and to work with some of you in these next months as we meet and strategize how better to attain access to justice for everyone in Maine.

This is our vision of a civil justice system in Maine:

• The quality of justice will not be impacted by income status.

• The justice system is convenient, understandable and affordable.

• Barriers to the justice system are overcome, including geography, disability, language, culture and institutionalization.

• All parties involved in the legal system who want and need a lawyer, can have a qualified, motivated advocate, regardless of ability to pay.

• The justice system provides a variety of means of resolving disputes.

• Courts are impartial, timely, efficient, effective and affordable, recognizing the interests of all parties and society in general and commanding public respect.

It is our hope that on Law Day 2007 we will be able to report on the progress of making this vision a reality, bringing us closer to offering justice for all.

Calien Lewis is executive director of the Maine Bar Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted exclusively to law-related charitable work. The primary purpose of the Foundation is to support projects designed to improve access to justice, especially for low income and socially disadvantaged populations.

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