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Lawmakers revive debate over Maine's indigent legal services

Bangor Daily News

The debate continues this year over how to improve the system that delivers free legal help to low-income people in Maine.

But members of Maine's judiciary committee say they're going back to the drawing board.

It wasn't long ago that Maine's Commission on Indigent Legal Services faced scrutiny for lax oversight and financial trouble.

In his annual report to the state, the commission's executive director, Justin Andrus, said things are better.

"I think we've done a remarkable job of addressing the oversight issues, ensuring that financial guidance and expectations have been communicated to counsel, ensuring that counsel are abiding by that guidance and ensuring that we're providing counsel who qualified," he told the judiciary committee Thursday. "We are successfully staffing all of our cases."

But the commission said it won't take much for that to change. Maine contracts with private lawyers to provide legal representation to defendants who can't afford it. The state has 279 private lawyers on the roster now, according to the commission's most recent report. But at times, there are no local attorneys who can take on cases.

Andrus says the current roster is aging, and he's struggling to find young attorneys.

A survey of the commission's roster last fall revealed that lawyers are looking for better health insurance, help with crushing student loan debt, legal research assistance and other benefits.

"A lot of counsel are not able to support health insurance," Andrus said. "Many counsel are not able to support staff. Those with health insurance tended to have very high deductible policies, so that's not good for counsel. It's also not good for clients, because it leads to the specter that an attorney who is under the weather or otherwise injured may be practicing on a day when an attorney ought not be practicing."

Members of judiciary committee questioned whether they could pass some sort legislation that would provide student loan forgiveness or raise the hourly rates of pay for assigned attorneys. The rates were raised last year from $60 to $80 an hour.

But Commissioner Ron Schneider said that's not the right solution to the problem. What young attorneys really want, he said, are the benefits they would receive if employed as a state public defender.

"How much are we spending money to cobble things together, rather than to have an organized system with a consistent, predictable budget, which is what a public defender's system, by and large, offers?" he said. "We're spending money to track our money."

Schneider said that while the commission's biggest accountability challenges may have improved, it doesn't change the fact that Maine's system is failing clients and taxpayers.

"We are doing better, but looking at the [American Bar Association] principles, the ten principles of the defense delivery system, we are failing," he said. "We do get a failing grade."

Commissioner Robert Cummins said he also believes the system isn't working.

"There's not enough money to fund the needed improvements," he said. "Until that changes, you can put a patch on a tire, but if the threads are gone it's not going to help."

Some lawmakers believe some of the state's budget surplus could be used to fund a pilot program for a public defender's office.

The committee's House chairman, Thom Harnett (D-Gardiner), said legislature should take steps to improve working conditions for the attorneys, while at the same time trying to push a pilot for a public defender's office across the finish line.

The committee advanced legislation last year that would have done exactly that, but it was never funded and is still pending in the appropriations committee.