Maine lawmakers are considering a proposal to allocate millions of dollars in emergency funding to civil legal aid providers across the state.

Advocates who provide and benefit from these services testified before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, asking them to support an emergency funding bill that would provide nearly $12 million over the next few years and help roughly 10,000 Maine households.

“Our civil legal aid services in Maine are numerous, yet severely underfunded,” said Terence Miller, Preble Street’s advocacy director. “Underfunding these terrific legal providers creates gaps in Maine’s funding of indigent legal services. Most people’s needs are not being adequately met.”

Preble Street, which houses hundreds of homeless Mainers, is among several organizations whose clients rely on civil legal aid services in the state.

Experts say Maine falls drastically short of meeting the demand for legal help in civil matters, which can cover anything from eviction court, protections from abuse for domestic violence, child custody proceedings, financial exploitation of the elderly, applications for asylum and workers’ rights.

While the National Center for Access to Justice recommends a ratio of at least 10 legal aid attorneys per 10,000 people living below 200% of the federal poverty line, Maine can only provide less than two.


Unlike in criminal cases, there is no law in Maine that guarantees access to an attorney for civil matters. But advocates say that doesn’t make civil legal aid any less important.

“The need for civil legal representation is just as critical,” said Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, who is sponsoring the emergency legislation that would allocate $3.9 million in the next fiscal year and another $7.8 million for fiscal year 2024-25.

Maine court officials support the bill and testified Tuesday that having an attorney for civil proceedings tends to ensure more favorable and faster outcomes.

Lawmakers have been invited to tour the Portland courthouse and Barbara Cardone, the director of legal affairs and public relations for the state court system, asked them to pay special attention to proceedings where people are representing themselves.

“If you have an opportunity to talk with the presiding judge afterward, ask that judge how could that hearing have been different if there were attorneys involved,” Cardone said. “How much time would it have taken? What issues would’ve been avoided?”

The money would be funneled through the Civil Legal Services Fund, which is overseen by a three-member commission that disburses funds to civil legal aid providers.


Maine has several civil legal aid providers who represent low-income Mainers for free – Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Legal Services for the Elderly, the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law, Maine Equal Justice Partners, the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and Disability Rights Maine.

Several of these organizations work primarily with households experiencing extreme poverty. In Maine, a little more than a quarter of the state is living below 200% of the federal poverty line.

With the proposed funding, these groups estimate they could provide legal advice and representation to an additional 10,000 Maine households.

Many providers testified Tuesday they have had to turn away thousands of Mainers simply because they don’t have the staffing or resources to help everyone.

Atlee Reilly, legal director for Disability Rights Maine, said Tuesday that the emergency funding would address a “significant need for no-cost legal aid to the disability community,” in a state where more than 16% of the population has a disability and oftentimes is also experiencing poverty.

Jaye Martin, executive director of Legal Services for the Elderly, said Tuesday that her organization had to turn away nearly 500 people last year, in an effort to ration attorneys and prioritize serving those with more dire needs. Martin said the longer it takes for those 500 to obtain help, the more likely their situations will snowball into emergencies.

Lawmakers will consider the bill again during a work session scheduled for March 29. No one offered testimony Tuesday in opposition of the bill.

L.D.564 would require a two-thirds majority to be enacted as an emergency measure, and would then take effect immediately after being signed into law by the governor.

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