Trump plan to gut civil legal aid would have devastating impact on Mainers

29 March 2017 , Posted in: Our Work

Maine Justice Foundation Board President William Robitzek wrote the following Op Ed piece in the 3/29/17 issue of the Portland Press Herald.

Former Maine Justice Foundation Board President, Arnold Macdonald, Esq., also wrote an article that ran in the April 2017 Maine Lawyers Review, on the impact of civil legal aid in Maine. Click the attached PDF to read this article. maine-lawyers-review_arnie-macdonald-article_april-2017

Low-income families, elders and veterans all benefit from the federal Legal Services Corp.

BRUNSWICK — The Trump administration is calling for the elimination of the Legal Services Corp., which has provided federal funding for civil legal aid since 1974. If this becomes reality, Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, would lose $1.4 million, almost one-quarter of its budget.

Across our nation, civil legal aid has long enjoyed broad bipartisan support for a reason: Americans believe in justice for all, not just for those who can afford it. The Legal Services Corp. has helped ensure fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money one has.

Pine Tree, a nonprofit organization with local offices around the state, has provided free legal aid to help low-income and vulnerable veterans, elders, children and other Mainers. When these Mainers are involved in civil legal cases, as opposed to criminal cases, the law does not require them to receive a court-appointed lawyer. The Legal Services Corp. provides funding so that when these people’s livelihoods, their health and their families are on the line, they have representation and a fair shot.

Pine Tree comes to the rescue of thousands of Mainers who cannot afford the legal help they need when faced with a life-changing situation. They help veterans denied rightfully earned benefits, women trapped in abusive relationships, parents seeking custody of their children and families facing wrongful evictions. In addition, they provide assistance in cases involving

Many of the Maine residents served by Pine Tree are the working poor. Others are single parents trying to provide a stable family life for their children. Some are adults with significant disabilities who are struggling to live independently. In 2016, elderly Mainers, veterans and low-income military families represented a substantial portion of all clients served, and direct legal services benefited almost 7,400 children and youth.

Civil legal aid makes fiscal sense and is a good investment. It helps Mainers of all backgrounds and ages, saving taxpayers millions of dollars while ensuring justice for all.

Everyone benefits when someone remains housed. Housing stabilizes families and helps them remain self-sufficient, ultimately saving taxpayers’ money. The public costs of sheltering families that become homeless are significant, as are the increased costs of providing public assistance, transitional housing and health care for families in crisis. Helping survivors of domestic violence reduces shelter costs. Early legal interventions prevent more serious problems down the road.

Over the past two years, Pine Tree has:

  • Saved Maine families from $2.9 million in illegal debt collection by third-party debt buyers.
  • Secured $2.3 million in ongoing alimony and child support, primarily for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault.
  • Avoided homelessness for more than 3,400 families, saving the state more than $3.2 million in emergency shelter costs.

In 2016, the small staff and volunteers of Pine Tree Legal handled almost 7,400 cases for clients in every part of Maine. Pine Tree’s staff has never been large enough to handle all requests for help, but this level of service was possible because Pine Tree secured $540,000 worth of donated services from Maine lawyers, students and community volunteers.

Pine Tree staff resolve most problems through simple advice, a quick explanation of the law or negotiation, thus avoiding a protracted and expensive lawsuit. It has been commended by the federal government for its effective and cost-effective work.

Gutting civil legal aid would devastate low-income families and vulnerable people in Maine and throughout the United States. Especially hard hit would be rural areas, where families struggle to find the legal help they need. If members of Congress do not save the Legal Services Corp., they will be turning their backs on their constituents and causing unnecessary suffering.

Funding for the Legal Services Corp. is a minuscule slice of the federal budget – roughly one-hundredth of 1 percent. However, eliminating the federal agency would be devastating to many. Our nation’s extremely modest investment in the Legal Services Corp. is an essential building block for ensuring fairness in the justice system and social stability. I urge all readers to contact their U.S. senators and representatives on this important issue.


William Robitzek of Brunswick is president of the Maine Justice Foundation, established to increase access to justice for low-income and vulnerable people in Maine and to facilitate the legal profession’s commitment to law-related public service.