AUGUSTA—Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, introduced legislation to expand access to justice and legal representation in rural Maine at a public hearing before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Wednesday. LD 1924, “An Act To Expand Access to Justice in Rural Maine through Legal Education” would authorize the University of Maine School of Law to open a satellite legal aid clinic in Fort Kent to increase access to legal counsel and build a pipeline to ensure rural Mainers have access to legal representation for the future.
“All Mainers deserve the same access to justice and legal representation regardless of where they live. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough attorneys practicing in rural parts of the state, and those who are practicing in rural Maine are nearing or well-past retirement age. This leaves our citizens’ basic rights unprotected,” said Pres. Jackson. “Our rights mean nothing if Mainers don’t have the resources to access them. That’s why I’ve introduced LD 1924. It would safeguard the rights of rural Mainers by increasing access to legal counsel, while also opening opportunities for young people to consider a career in law.”
Pres. Jackson brought forward this legislation after conversations with Toby Jandreau, a lawyer in Fort Kent who participates in Maine Law’s Rural Fellowship Program and struggles to meet the demand for legal counsel in the area.
“As the only general practice attorney in Fort Kent and one of only a handful of attorneys serving the entire St. John Valley, I turn down more cases than I take on simply because I don’t have the time or capacity. Establishing this partnership between Maine Law and the University of Maine at Fort Kent will ensure fewer rural Mainers have to go without legal counsel by providing our young people with an educational pathway to return home,” said Jandreau. “If we get folks from away who come up to practice law in Aroostook County, that would be fantastic. But I think this bill will be most impactful to people who have roots in rural Maine. It sends a strong message to our students that there is a future for them, a good life for them, and sustainable income for them in rural Maine.”
The bill would establish a 3-year pilot program in Fort Kent, expanding access to free legal aid for rural Mainers, recruiting new attorneys to rural parts of the state and encouraging young people in the area to pursue a career in law. After this 3-year period, the Maine Legislature would have the opportunity to duplicate this program in other parts of the state that face similar challenges.
Access to legal counsel varies drastically throughout the state. According to a 2018 Annual Report from the Maine Board of Overseers, there were only 72 practicing attorneys working in Aroostook County. In a county with a population of roughly 67,000 people, that’s one attorney for every 942 residents. Half of these lawyers are over the age of 60, and a quarter of the lawyers are over the age of 70. At the same time, the number of practicing attorneys working in Cumberland County is more than the number of practicing attorneys working in the other 15 counties combined.
“As lawmakers, we often talk about making sure working Maine families in rural areas don’t get left behind. This is an opportunity to match our words with action,” said Pres. Jackson. “Legal representation is a right and not just a luxury for the elite. With this bill, we can begin to close the justice gap and better protect the unalienable rights of our constituents.”
Representatives from the University of Maine School of Law, the Judicial Branch, Maine Trial Lawyers Association, Maine State Bar Association, Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence testified in favor of the proposed legislation at the public hearing. LD 1924 will be the subject of additional work sessions in the coming weeks.