Law Day, May 1, symbolizes the U.S. commitment to equity and justice, which has been hurt in the recession.

By Jaye Martin

Guest Columnist

Law Day has been celebrated since 1958, when President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as a time to reaffirm our nation’s commitment to a government of law, with equity and justice for all.

Today, more of our citizens face challenges requiring them to seek access to justice through our legal and court systems, and those systems are struggling to keep up with that increased need. Whether it’s dealing with foreclosure and bankruptcy, struggling with access to quality health care and housing, or fighting elder abuse and financial exploitation, the numbers needing legal assistance are rising and the resources to help them are declining.

An important part of ensuring access to justice is ensuring free legal help is available when a person’s basic human needs are at stake.

Legal Services for the Elderly is Maine’s only statewide legal aid program focused exclusively on meeting the civil legal needs of the elderly. LSE provides free legal help to Maine residents 60 years of age and older when their basic human needs are at stake. This includes things like shelter, safety, self determination, health care and accessing public benefits such as Social Security, Medicare, MaineCare and food stamps. LSE also helps the elderly and disabled when they are denied needed prescription drugs under Medicare Part D. Seniors in need of legal help can find assistance by calling LSE’s statewide Helpline. 1-800-750-5353. LSE also has five area offices located across the state, including one at Seniors Plus in Lewiston.

One of the realities of our justice system is that it takes money to make it work. This year, LSE has seen the demand for its services increase 30 percent on a statewide basis and 35 percent in Androscoggin County, compared to last year. The largest and fastest growing area of need for LSE’s services involves situations where Maine’s elderly face financial crisis, often from exploitation by a caretaker or family member, or predatory or questionable practices on the part of lenders or creditors. Often a person’s home and lifetime of savings is at stake. There typically is no place for these victims to turn for legal help because they are unable to pay for the needed legal services.

Unless adequate financial resources are available to ensure free legal help is there when needed, equity and justice for all as envisioned by President Eisenhower when he established Law Day is impossible. LSE is fortunate to have financial support from a variety of sources, including the private bar through the Campaign for Justice, local United Ways, the Office of Elder Services, and many other federal, state and private foundation sources.

One longstanding source of support for legal aid in Maine is the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts Program administered by the Maine Bar Foundation, with participation by Maine’s private attorneys. IOLTA allows certain pooled funds to generate income for legal aid and administration of justice programs around the state. As business has declined in Maine and interest rates are at historic lows, IOLTA revenues have declined by nearly a third. This decline in a key source of financial support for legal aid work could mean there will be less free legal help available at a time when the need for service is increasing.

But here is a bright spot: 12 Maine banks have recently risen to the occasion and pledged to help legal aid providers in Maine by agreeing to become Prime Partners with the Maine Bar Foundation and to offer a higher interest rate for IOLTA accounts. These banks acknowledge the important role they play in supporting their communities and have agreed to pay at least 2 percent interest on IOLTA accounts to help the growing number of their neighbors in need.

The Prime Partners can be found on the Maine Bar Foundation website at www.mbf.org. Many Maine banks are also active in supporting their local United Way campaign, another important source of funding for legal aid projects across the state, including in Androscoggin County.

As large financial institutions across the country are acting less than heroic in these trying times, Law Day presents an opportunity to express appreciation for the banks in our local communities that are still operating with a double bottom line – building sound financial institutions and helping their neighbors.

Jaye Martin is executive director of Legal Services for the Elderly, with offices across the state, including at Senior Plus in Lewiston. E-mail: [email protected]


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