AUGUSTA — Bills from lawyers representing indigent defendants will be paid sooner rather than later now that the governor stepped in with some emergency funding.

But the $50 an hour rate remains, continuing to irk some attorneys who say that’s unreasonably low.

A note to attorneys from John Pelletier, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, thanked Gov. Paul LePage for taking action and said the infusion of about $900,000 means the commission has the ability to pay attorneys’ bills from May 10, which is when the state money ran out.

“We should be back on our regular payment schedule by early next week, and we will be able to maintain that schedule for the rest of the fiscal year,” Pelletier wrote.

Indigent defendants are those who face jail time and can’t afford a lawyer, so they’re appointed one who’s paid through a state program.

Robert Ruffner, a Portland-based attorney, had drawn attention to the shortfall and the almost six-week wait for payment when he withdrew from representing all his appointed clients last week.

Ruffner applauded LePage’s cash infusion.

“I can’t remember the last time a governor went to these efforts to close up a shortfall,” he said. “Hopefully the commission will get this level of support next year.”

Ruffner, however, said he will not resume accepting court-appointed cases until the $50 per hour rate of pay is increased. It has remained at that rate since 1999.

“We can no longer afford to be a government that delays payments to those who provide services to Maine people. Indigent legal services are important as are our hospitals and medical providers,” LePage said in a statement Thursday. “Paying our bills is a priority of my administration.”

The governor’s statement noted a rise in the cost of legal services and an increased number of cases has led to the shortfall. In the 2011 fiscal year, the state estimated 25,041 cases would be referred to the Indigent legal services commission, but the total vouchers claimed for services came in higher, at 26,601.

The cost of such legal services increased from an average of $389.63 per case, to $405.30, the governor’s statement said.

The budget for legal representation for indigent defendants was $10.5 million for the fiscal year ending June 30.

Pelletier said earlier that attorney bills submitted after May 10 hadn’t been paid.

Scott Hess, an Augusta attorney who represents many indigent defendants, is leaving his solo practice to join the Camden-based firm of Elliott & MacLean LLP Law Offices — at least partly because his practice is so busy he needs staff assistance.

Hess said Wednesday he is not confident he could support a staff on his own while receiving $50 an hour for work.

“Hopefully this action by the governor will reinforce the need and the importance of funding legal services for the indigent,” he said, “and hopefully in the long-term, it will lead to more regular and predictable funding.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]


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