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Fall In Number Of Attorneys And Rise In Case Loads Continues in Maine

The slow car crash of rising number of criminal cases in Maine and the falling number of attorneys taking on clients who cannot afford a lawyer continues.

For the first time the commission overseeing criminal defense for the poor in the state has admitted it cannot find attorneys for all cases that need one.

Attorneys taking indigent clients is now at 186 attorneys in Maine, excluding Lawyers of the Day (doing initial appearances before an attorney is assigned) while rosters have been falling for the last four years. Over approximately the same period (since 2017) caseloads have been increasing in the state’s courts.

In the renewal process that attorneys must complete every year, the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services received 247 attorney renewals, and of those 61 were not taking appointed cases. This blog has highlighted the growing case load in Maine courts because of the pandemic multiple times.

MCILS said that based on case counts and attorney availability, the need for lawyers exceeds capacity in nearly every court in every district. At a meeting on August 22, 2022, the commission said there are clients awaiting appointments of attorneys in Aroostook County.

At the meeting, the commission's chairman Josh Tardy, Esq., said increasing the rate of pay for attorneys (currently $80 an hour) was the only factor that could encourage attorneys to take on cases and join the roster. The commission is also working on trying to get student loan forgiveness for contract attorneys to also encourage more to do indigent public defense work.

MCILS executive director Justin Andrus said the rate should be $150 an hour, based on research about parity with prosecutors. All expenses - including health insurance, office space, legal databases - have to come out of the amount paid to defense attorneys.

Mr. Tardy said "I don't know that this commission can do any more" to highlight the problems of staffing cases. "We're there."

According to data gathered by the commission, a small number of attorneys are also taking an eye-popping number of cases.

  • Eleven attorneys (4%) account for 26% (6,141) of the total cases currently open, each having 301+ cases currently open.

  • Nearly half (49%) of the total open cases are spread among 33 attorneys, who account for only 13% of the total eligible list.

  • Of the 244 attorneys from the raw data set, half of the attorneys (120 attorneys = 9%-0 cases, 13%-1 to 10 cases, 7%-11 to 20 cases, 21%-21 to 50 cases), have a total of 2,174 cases open amongst all of them, totaling only 9% of the total cases open.

  • Seven attorneys (3%) have opened 201+ cases so far this year, amounting to 1,721 cases, or 13%.

  • Thirty-seven attorneys (15%) have opened 101 to 200 cases so far this year, amounting to 5,391 cases, or 41%.

  • Fifty-four per cent of the cases opened in the year to date were opened by 44 attorneys, or 18% of the total attorneys.

The commission is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine alleging that the state’s system of assigned lawyers cannot provide effective assistance of counsel. MCILS provides attorneys for criminal cases as well as parental rights and involuntary commitment cases under the state’s constitution. The United States Supreme Court guarantees a right to counsel for criminal cases for indigent clients under the Sixth Amendment.


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