The Indigent Legal Services Commission (ILSC) Issues Report

March 3, 2009

The Indigent Legal Services Commission, established last May by the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine to study how Maine currently provides for legal representation to indigent citizens and how to improve the provision of such services, issued its report today. (A membership list is attached.)

Since May the Commission has met four times and has reviewed how such services are provided in Maine and nationally. The Commission has recommended to the Legislature the creation of an independent commission to manage and administer the provision of constitutionally mandated legal services to the poor.

Among the Commission’s findings were the following:

Under the United States Constitution and the Maine Constitution, an indigent person charged with a crime, facing the loss of parental rights, or subject to involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital is entitled to legal counsel provided at state expense, and the annual cost of such services currently exceeds ten million dollars.
In recent years, the demand for constitutionally mandated legal services has increased substantially, due in part to the rising number of child protective hearings requiring counsel and an increase in the number of criminal cases with mandatory jail time. In addition, a growing percentage of criminal defendants are indigent and entitled to such services. For example, in FY ’08 42% of all juvenile justice cases and 61% of all adult Superior Court criminal cases were entitled to indigent legal services paid for by the state.

An agency to manage such services has never been established; instead, historically such representation has been funded by an appropriation to the Judiciary.

In 42 states, including all of New England, these services are provided by an agency and an appropriation independent of the Judiciary.

In Maine, indigent legal services are managed by approximately 60 judges located in 40 court locations through out the state, who approve vouchers to private attorneys acting as indigent legal counsel and who are located throughout the state.

The current method of paying for indigent legal services creates a basic inequity between litigants by placing judges in the position of ruling on compensation and reasonable effort and expenses for only one side in criminal and protective custody matters.

This issue is exacerbated when, due to budgetary shortfalls, judges are authorizing payment of indigent legal fees out of appropriations intended to fund judicial branch operations.

The current system lacks a central authority to provide coordinated planning, oversight and management in order to assure the delivery of high-quality legal representation in a cost effective manner.

The Commission concluded that the creation of an independent commission will provide independent oversight for the delivery of indigent counsel services, improve the quality of representation, insure the independence of counsel, and establish uniform policies and procedures for the delivery of such services, and will better ensure the cost effective delivery of such services.

The Commission is recommending that personnel and money be transferred to the new agency from the judicial budget so the new Commission can be created at no additional cost to the state.

Justice Robert W. Clifford of the Maine Supreme Court, chairman of the commission, said, “This recommendation is not about lawyers. It is about insuring that the poorest among us, who are faced with the imminent loss of freedom or parental rights, have access to quality representation, at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer. An independent entity overseeing the provision of these services will be better able to address issues of competency and efficiency than 50 judges scattered statewide.”

A full copy of the report is available on the Forms and Publications section of the Judicial Branch website.

You can also download a full copy of the report by clicking here.