Does Lawyers in Libraries work at bringing Access to Justice to those in Need?

Maine has a lawyer-sponsored program that has been pulled together by various groups called “Lawyers in Libraries“. The idea seem to be that as a consumer you could make an appointment to sit down with a lawyer and receive legal help/ advice/ consultation/ referral. This years program had 22 libraries from across the state participate. Most had a volunteer lawyer available for two hours and appointments ranged from 10-15 minutes per scheduled client. In some cases consumers could get more time if no one showed up after your time.

This is one way that lawyers and Maine’s courts are trying (Claiming?) to bring Access to Justice to those who need it. In Maine it is estimated that over 113,000 in 2015 had issues with accessing justice of which 17,065 are in Family Courts alone. It is a huge task to bring these people the tools they need to have a fair and equitable “access to justice”.

Lawyers in Libraries (L in L) has been promoted for several years now and we wanted to know how effective the program has been with reducing the numbers of unservered populations and bringing access to justice to those in need. We wrote to Justice Andrew Mead the following:

From: J M Coll

Sent: May 11, 2016 9:39 AM

To: Justice Andrew Mead , “Stephen D. Nelson Esq” , SenDavid Burns

Cc: Mary Ann Lynch*** , Avery.T.Day, gkesich, jharrison, sdolan

Subject: Fw: Access to Justice: Lawyers in Libraries?

Justice Andrew Mead

Maine Judicial Branch

Justice Access Group

Dear Justice Mead,

We’ve been watching with interest last weeks unfolding of the “Lawyers in Libraries” program.

It  has been touted in some quarters as a component of a larger “access to justice” strategy that aims to address the large numbers of Mainers who are excluded from “access”, because they go to court ‘pro se’, or on their own. Our team of observers have looked at the Maine program and have pooled their observational data about six such “L in L” programs in Maine libraries this past week. With all due respect, we have to conclude that the Maine program in its present form, in our view does virtually nothing to improve Maine citizens’ “access justice”. The “L in L” program is extremely unlikely to lower this state’s statistics of those who lack legal support for “access to justice”. Let us be more specific in our observations:

1.) The program goals are unclear. Is the program’s aim to polish the professional image of Maine lawyers as nice people with a charm “offensive” in a community setting? Does it aim to provide service to unserved populations of Mainers and thereby to reduce ‘pro se’ statistics? Does it aim to market private legal services to the public and improve the private practices of lawyers who might not yet have a “full practice”? It is hard to measure success or failure quantitatively without specified goals.

2.) The present “lawyers in libraries” program is not a population-oriented approach, which would define the demographics of Maine’s underserved populations, target them and aim a intervention, or a series of interventions, at recruiting them for appropriate legal service. The goal would be reducing incidence and prevalence of the problem in the target population. A ‘pro se’ population in family courts who are 75% ‘pro se’ (17,065 people in 2015), would be one good example of a legally unserved population. Were one truly wishing to reach this population, one would need to define it demographically, decide where (which locales) best to make contact and how best “to speak” to such a population. One might use a targeted marketing campaign, such as is very common today in many large businesses which want to reach unserved new markets.

3.) From our examination of “lawyers in libraries” in several towns across Maine, we observe that “volunteer” lawyers do not appear in many town libraries. The “L in L” lawyer volunteers (out of 3,100 Maine Bar members) are few in number ,and there is a limited donation of time. In several libraries there is only one lawyer for 2 hours at the end of one day. For example one Maine city of 21.000 population had one 2 hour session scheduled from 5:30 – 7:30 pm for the entire week, a fairly frugal, lawyerly service donation. We have to ask,what miracles of law are accomplished in 10 – 15 minute appointments, over 2 hours, with even the most skilled lawyer or the most fast talking client? Typically volunteer lawyers spoke briefly at the start of the scheduled time, and there are handouts of “legal resources” which list free and low cost services, such as are posted on the Maine Judicial Branch web site. Public attendance in some instances was a total of 3 people, but notices, advertising this program, in several instances, seemed to be last minute postings in the newspapers or the paper’s online version. The volunteer lawyers seemed pleasant enough, but because of their areas of special practice, were often less informed in other legal issues beyond their practice interests. They could only explain and provided very general information but avoided any direct legal advice. For those Maine libraries with no program, we wonder why? Is it because of lack of interest on the part of the majority of the 3,100 Bar members? Is it due to negative feeling on the part of Bar members about the value of the program? How is “access to justice” improved by the “L in L” program? Most importantly, does this effort have any impact on the statistics?

4.) We have to say that the “L in L” program does no harm, but we’d ask, does it do any good for the public who seek access? In our opinion, this program has serious problems of focus and design. If it desires to reduce the huge statistical problem of “lack of access to justice”, it is embarrassingly inadequate and superficial. To learn from this past week’s experience, do any of the program’s sponsors plan a post-program evaluation? Besides our assessment, does the “access to justice” committee intend to do any form of program assessment? We suggest, based on our observations, that you need either to re-design this program top to bottom, or scrap it  With regret, we have to say, as the “L in L” program stands at the moment, it does nothing that we can see to improve badly needed “access to justice” in Maine.

Mainers are still waiting for “access to justice”.

Sincerely,

Jerome A Collins

Within about 30 minutes Justice Andrew Mead replied back:

From: Andrew Mead

Sent: May 11, 2016 10:13 AM

To: J & M Coll

Cc: “Stephen D. Nelson Esq” , SenDavid Burns , Mary Ann Lynch*** , “Day, Avery T” , gkesich, jharrison, sdolan

Subject: Re: Fw: Access to Justice: Lawyers in Libraries?

Dr. Collins –

Thank you for your note. I will pass your comments along to the New Lawyers Section of the Maine State Bar Association. The New Lawyers Section has taken over the administration of the program.

My original vision for the program was to have volunteer lawyers available on a given day–perhaps the first of each month–at every public library in the state. The lawyers would be available to give generalized advice and refer folks to legal services organizations and private lawyers as appropriate. The program would be directed at individuals in the poverty and modest means economic categories, but no one would be turned away from the sessions. The overarching goal is to connect more people with legal representation.

Unfortunately the scope of such a program renders it administratively unfeasible without the creation of a fully staffed organization to run it. Accordingly, the current program, limited in scope as it must be, continues to evolve as a pilot program. The biggest challenge is getting the word out. Most folks who would benefit from speaking with a lawyer simply don’t know that lawyers are available to meet with them in some libraries on Law Day.

It is my hope that the program will continue to gain traction as public awareness grows. The lawyers and the libraries continue to be committed to it. I agree that the current Lawyers in Libraries program is a very small initiative in contrast to the enormous need, but we need to pursue every possible avenue to improve access to justice. For the individuals who did connect with legal services as a result of the Lawyers in Libraries, the program was a success for them.

It is my hope that the New Lawyers Section will continue this initiative (which it undertook only very recently) and grow it to the point where public knows that libraries can be the crucial link between folks who need legal representation and the lawyers who can serve them.

Thank you for your continuing interest in access to justice issues.

A. Mead

Lawyers in Libraries was developed as a result of the “Khoury Report” which was commissioned by the Justice Action League (JAG). As part of the recommendations Lawyers would volunteer once a year on Law Day in libraries to offer legal service and in certain circumstances legal advice. This was part of a plan to bring access to justice to a growing number of consumers who were in desperate need of legal help and guidance.

It is not known how effective the Law Day – Lawyers in Libraries is. Simple math shows that for 2015 an estimated 900-1000 could be helped for the time allotment of 15 minutes per client. Is 15 minutes once a year enough time to help consumers who need greater access to justice? Or is this a way for lawyers to find new clients who need legal representation?

MeGAL is working for Family Court reform. In 2015 there were 17,065 people in Family Court who struggled with access to justice. Who for what ever reason could not afford to hire a lawyer or keep one through to the end of their case. If you have had issues with Access 2 Justice (A2J) we encourage you to contact your representatives to let them know. You should also get involved with change and can start by contacting us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or finding us on Facebook.