Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.
To be a legal aid advocate, by definition, is to be a champion of change in the lives of our clients and in the legal environment in which we operate. Over the past 44 years, Pine Tree Legal Assistance has been staffed by hundreds of champions of change, and the quality of their work is extraordinary. In Maine, the abolition of debtors’ prison, the right to due process and a fair hearing, the first successful employment discrimination lawsuits, improved housing codes, accessibility for people with disabilities, and an end to “robo-signing” in foreclosure proceedings are all legacies of Pine Tree’s commitment to individual clients who sought our help, one person at a time.
The downside to a great reputation is that, every year, we get more and more calls for help and must turn away a higher percentage because of limited staff resources. In 2009, Pine Tree only had sufficient resources to handle 15% of eligible requests for help and that percentage is dropping as we lose staff to new funding cuts. Every week, our staff say “no” to desperate callers with meritorious legal claims, knowing those callers will not find an attorney elsewhere to take their case. Instead, we can only do our best to ensure that Maine people understand their legal rights and have some tools to enforce them in Court or before administrative agencies. Until the advent of the Internet, we relied on printed versions of in-house publications such as “Do Your Own Divorce in Maine.”
In 1996, Pine Tree launched the first legal aid website in the United States to include self-help legal resources written at an 8th grade reading level. Today, www.ptla.org remains one of the most popular legal aid websites in the country and we’ve added additional websites (www.vlp.org, www.helpmelaw.org, and www.kidslegal.org) addressing Maine law and resources for different audiences. Anecdotal information confirms that these websites help many people, but they will never be a substitute for skilled legal advocacy in a complex proceeding.
Another case in point: the legal needs of our military and veteran families, for which there are shockingly few resources. Like many rural states, a very high percentage of Maine’s residents have served or are serving in the military. We found thousands of websites devoted to a wide range of topics relevant to military and veteran families, but not one focused on their legal needs. With funding from the Legal Services Corporation and the help of project partners and volunteers, we launched the country’s first such website last November at www.statesidelegal.org. We’re very proud of the site and are working to add new content and tools on a regular basis, but this effort has heightened our awareness of their need for individual representation. One of Pine Tree’s earliest big cases established the right to welfare benefits for military families when a parent is absent because of their service. (Stoddard v. Fisher, 330 F. Supp 566 (1971) Thirty years later, I’m hoping for a Champion of Change (in dollars and cents) to ensure that families like the Stoddards will always have access to high quality legal services when they need it.
Nan Heald is Executive Director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance.