"We received over six thousand requests for help during this two-month period," says Nan Heald, who organized the survey. She's the director of Pine Tree Legal, one of the six legal service providers for low income people in Maine. "And we were only able to provide the help that people really needed to about 24 percent of those requests."
Most people did get some form of basic legal advice and self-help ideas, she says, but when it came to providing a lawyer, most needy Mainers were left in need. Those hit by foreclosure had the toughest deal - with only six percent of requests for help being answered.
"Foreclosure is a huge problem in Maine right now," Heald says. "It's frustrating to us because Pine Tree's actually added staff to try and deal with this problem, we have a lot of information on foreclosure our website, which is www.ptla.org. But because there's so much need we are just scratching the surface, and six percent of all requests is not very good."
At the heart of the problem, she says, is a massive funding shortage: For the last three years, the amount of state funding Pine Tree Legal receives has fallen steadily, dropping around 10 percent in the last year to $264,000.
It's a situation which is unlikely to change anytime soon, says one state senator. "We just don't have the money to do anything close to what we would like to do across the board in the judiciary," says Larry Bliss, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee. "We don't have enough money for clerks, we don't have enough money for approrpriate security, we certainly don't have enough money to afford folks who need proper representation the opportunity to get it."
"Virtually all the state grants are reduced or gone completely," says Calien Lewis, Director of the Maine Bar Foundation. "The law school clinic for instance, which does a considerable amount work for low income legal services, totally lost the money that was available to help prisoners with their civil legal matters. The state totally cancelled that grant this year."
The Maine Bar Foundation provides about $1 million a year to legal service providers. The dire financial situation, says Lewis, prompted the Foundation late last year to dip into its reserves to keep funding at its current level.
While the funding for legal services is shrinking, demand for the services is increasing. During the first six months of this year, legal aid providers handled nearly 13,700 cases, putting them on track for a 30 percent increase over 2008 case levels.
Forty-four full-time lawyers currently work in legal aid, says Nan Heald, which is nowhere near enough, even with the generous voluntary work done by Maine's private attorneys. About one-third of the Maine Bar - which is about 1,000 lawyers - regularly donate their time to help those needing legal help.
"Maine is really fortunate in having a lot of private attorneys who volunteer their time," Heald says. The value of that donated service last year, she says, was almost $2 million. "And yet we are still only able to meet 25 percent of the need," she says.
"It's easy to compartmentalize people into those people who need extra help," says Caroline Wilshusen, a co-ordinator at the Justice Action Group, a coalition of legal organizations dedicated to providing legal services to low-income Mainers. "But when you start to actually look at the picture, which is one of the things that the Justice Action Group does, you see that the needs of these individual people that are not being met, impact their entire community and therefore all of Maine," Wilshusen says.
With the funding situation so dire, Wilshusen says the reliance on voluntary help and donations is greater than ever. This makes it more crucial than ever to raise awareness of, and change attitudes towards, legal services. She says that includes making people realize that they don't have to do something wrong to need a lawyer.
The Justice Action Group has organized a day-long symposium in Portland on October 2nd to look at the issue. For details about this symposium, and for more information about legal aid in the state, go to helpmelaw.org