AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate unanimously approved a bill from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, to expand access to justice and legal representation in rural Maine. 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 rural legal aid clinic in Fort Kent.
“The right to legal counsel shouldn’t depend on your zip code. Unfortunately, the shortage of practicing attorneys in Aroostook County has made it difficult for folks in rural Maine to exercise their constitutional right, let alone consult a lawyer on other business matters and family matters,” said President Jackson. “By establishing a rural legal aid clinic at Fort Kent, we can protect the rights of rural Mainers while creating opportunities for young people to pursue a legal education and set up a practice in the rural, underserved parts of our state.”
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. Pres. Jackson introduced the bill after conversations with Toby Jandreau, a lawyer in Fort Kent who participates in Maine Law’s Rural Fellowship Program.
“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.”
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.
“Underserved Maine counties are experiencing a consequential crisis in access to justice that may affect businesses, human safety, and generations to come. Many of us have been asking – what can we do to support those communities?” said Leigh I. Saufley, Dean of the University of Maine School of Law. “This proposal to jump-start high-quality Legal Clinics in rural counties offers an immediate method for helping Maine people when they need it most. It will provide law students with excellent hands-on experience in real court settings; it will provide our communities with legal help across the spectrum of needs; and it will encourage our students to stay in Maine and make their careers here.”
LD 1924 faces additional votes in the House before returning to the Senate for enactment.