Representation for Family Law Issues —
The Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project
Early in the afternoon, once a week in Lewiston District Court House, a small group of people start to gather in the hallway. Some of them have brought children, most of them have papers, perhaps neatly organized into a folder or maybe dog-eared and clutched in worried hands. Soon the undergrad volunteer arrives and starts to make a list and hand out forms. Then one by one, each person will get a chance to meet with “The Lawyer.” This same scene repeats itself in other court houses in Maine every week and is just one of the many ways the people of Maine with low incomes are able to access pro bono representation for family law issues.
Created in 1983 through a partnership between the Maine Bar Foundation and Pine Tree Legal Assistance, the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) is Maine's statewide pro bono project completing more than 4,000 client intakes per year. Approximately, one-third to one-half of VLP funding has come through IOLTA over the past five years and much of this funding has gone to support representation for family law litigants.
Up to 50% of VLP’s client callers are looking for help with family law problems, and VLP fills the role of facilitating providers who offer advice and representation to people with low incomes. As facilitator, the organization’s primary role is to refer clients to pro bono lawyers and manage pro bono projects, but it does not provide legal representation. Because of this role, VLP is able to refer both parties in a family law matter to different pro bono attorneys. In most cases, if one of the parties is poor, chances are that the other will also have a low income. With the ability to obtain representation for both parties, VLP does not have to turn away the individual who calls last.
The work of CHAPS
The Court House Assistant Project clinics or CHAPs, described above, now operate weekly in four district courts, serving more than 800 clients per year. At each walk-in clinic, one to three pro bono attorneys are available to meet with family law litigants and provide them with limited representation, including help with forms, information about process, and specific advice about cases. A client does not need to have an appointment, and the services provided are specific to the client’s needs. In every county where a CHAPs clinic has opened, client numbers have increased by 200 to 300 individuals per year. The attorneys are supported by undergraduates from local colleges, who help with organization and intake. VLP has developed relationships over many years with local colleges, including the University of Maine undergraduate and law schools, Bowdoin, Bates and St Josephs. These partnerships have created long standing training and volunteering programs that support all VLP family law projects and VLP programming as a whole. Hundreds of able and committed students have participated over the years, providing an average of more than 6,000 hours of volunteer time per year.
The Family Law Help Line
VLP also administrates a family law phone help line for clients statewide who can not attend a CHAPs clinic. The family law help line operates twice a week, with one afternoon and one evening session. Clients have appointments to receive calls from the pro bono attorneys and supervised law students who staff the help line. Approximately 1,000 clients per year make use of this phone based service, which offers limited representation including help understanding the family court process and specific advice for each client’s situation. The Friday afternoon helpline is sponsored by a prominent Portland family law firm whose experienced attorneys staff the project on a rotating schedule. Every person who receives limited representation through a VLP family law project is being offered quality advice from some of the best family lawyers in Maine.
Pro Bono Representation
Maine attorneys are very generous with the pro bono time that they give through VLP and other IOLTA funded legal services. However, with thousands of family law litigants needing to access the courts every year, VLP is unable to obtain full pro bono representation for the many people with low incomes who call looking for service. Limited representation projects as described above, work well enough for many self represented litigants, especially because family courts in Maine have worked diligently to be accessible to the increasing number of people who appear before them without lawyers. Yet, there are still many people with family law needs who, because of a disability or life situation, cannot access justice without full representation. Because of this fact, VLP prioritizes cases and refers these clients for full representation as resources allow.
Priorities for referral to a pro bono attorney for full representation include cases where one party has retained counsel, where there has been domestic violence between the parties, where minor children are involved in the proceeding, where the client has limited English proficiency, or where the client has significant mental health issues. In any of these situations, VLP works to find a pro bono attorney who will take the case through to a final judgment or order. Statewide, VLP uses a uniform procedure for all full representation cases, this process includes: intake and assessment by VLP volunteers and staff; calls from private attorneys (Lawyers for the Day) based at VLP’s two offices to attorneys throughout the state, explaining the case and urging those lawyers to take the case on a pro bono basis.
The Coffin Family Law Fellowship
In Maine’s largest county, Cumberland, where Maine’s foremost law firms are located, VLP supports a unique project created in partnership with the private bar, Pine Tree Legal Assistance, and the Maine Bar Foundation. This project is the Frank M. Coffin Family Law Fellowship, named after Frank M. Coffin, a much beloved federal appellate judge and founder of Maine’s access to justice efforts. The Coffin Fellows are new attorneys who have demonstrated an interest and commitment to low income legal aid and family law. During the Fellowship, they are trained and supervised within Pine Tree’s Family Law Unit. There are two fellowship positions, and the fellows are selected to serve two-year terms (staggered) during which time they represent parties with low incomes in family law cases. Through the generous funding of twelve Portland law firms, the Maine Bar Foundation is able to offer this experience to young lawyers wanting to work for legal services. The Coffin Fellows work exclusively with clients who have qualified through the Volunteer Lawyers Project for pro bono family law representation and who meet the priorities set for referral for full representation. In the eleven years of the project’s existence, the Coffin Fellows have worked on 856 of the most difficult cases on behalf of low-income men and women in Cumberland County who otherwise would have been self-represented. This number is in addition to the 200 to 300 family law cases per year that VLP refers for full representation to the private bar.
Despite all these services, many low-income family law litigants, especially in rural areas, do not have access to legal assistance. To meet the need for access to justice, VLP is expanding a mentoring program where new attorneys can take a pro bono family case with the reassurance of having an experienced mentor as a consultant. Over the next two years, in partnership with Maine public Libraries, VLP is developing a project, which will culminate in family law consultations over MOVI (Skype-like technology). This technology will allow an attorney in Portland to provide a family law clinic service to someone sitting in the libraries of rural Maine.
The Need for Funding
All of these programs depend on funding; sadly, the reality is that despite the wonderful contributions of volunteers, including and average of more than 10,000 pro bono attorney hours per year, all pro bono projects need staff time and resources to create and sustain them. Even with the down turn in revenue, IOLTA continues to fund the work of VLP on new projects in order to maintain a good position to increase access to justice.
Juliet Holmes-Smith received her JD from the University of Maine School of Law and is currently the Director of Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP). Before moving to VLP, she served as Directing Attorney for the Family Law Unit at Pine Tree Legal Assistance. Ms. Holmes-Smith is a member of the Maine Family Law Advisory Commission, a member of the Maine Victims Compensation Board, and is co-chair of the Maine Justice Action Group's Collaboration Committee.