Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Does Lawyers in Libraries work at bringing Access to Justice to those in Need?

Maine has a lawyer-sponsored program that has been pulled together by various groups called "Lawyers in Libraries". The idea seem to be that as a consumer you could make an appointment to sit down with a lawyer and receive legal help/ advice/ consultation/ referral. This years program had 22 libraries from across the state participate. Most had a volunteer lawyer available for two hours and appointments ranged from 10-15 minutes per scheduled client. In some cases consumers could get more time if no one showed up after your time.

This is one way that lawyers and Maine's courts are trying (Claiming?) to bring Access to Justice to those who need it. In Maine it is estimated that over 113,000 in 2015 had issues with accessing justice of which 17,065 are in Family Courts alone. It is a huge task to bring these people the tools they need to have a fair and equitable "access to justice".

Lawyers in Libraries (L in L) has been promoted for several years now and we wanted to know how effective the program has been with reducing the numbers of unservered populations and bringing access to justice to those in need. We wrote to Justice Andrew Mead the following:

From: J M Coll
Sent: May 11, 2016 9:39 AM
To: Justice Andrew Mead , "Stephen D. Nelson Esq" , SenDavid Burns
Cc: Mary Ann Lynch*** , Avery.T.Day, gkesich, jharrison, sdolan
Subject: Fw: Access to Justice: Lawyers in Libraries?

Justice Andrew Mead
Maine Judicial Branch
Justice Access Group

Dear Justice Mead,

We've been watching with interest last weeks unfolding of the "Lawyers in Libraries" program.

It  has been touted in some quarters as a component of a larger "access to justice" strategy that aims to address the large numbers of Mainers who are excluded from "access", because they go to court 'pro se', or on their own. Our team of observers have looked at the Maine program and have pooled their observational data about six such "L in L" programs in Maine libraries this past week. With all due respect, we have to conclude that the Maine program in its present form, in our view does virtually nothing to improve Maine citizens' "access justice". The "L in L" program is extremely unlikely to lower this state's statistics of those who lack legal support for "access to justice". Let us be more specific in our observations:

1.) The program goals are unclear. Is the program's aim to polish the professional image of Maine lawyers as nice people with a charm "offensive" in a community setting? Does it aim to provide service to unserved populations of Mainers and thereby to reduce 'pro se' statistics? Does it aim to market private legal services to the public and improve the private practices of lawyers who might not yet have a "full practice"? It is hard to measure success or failure quantitatively without specified goals.

2.) The present "lawyers in libraries" program is not a population-oriented approach, which would define the demographics of Maine's underserved populations, target them and aim a intervention, or a series of interventions, at recruiting them for appropriate legal service. The goal would be reducing incidence and prevalence of the problem in the target population. A 'pro se' population in family courts who are 75% 'pro se' (17,065 people in 2015), would be one good example of a legally unserved population. Were one truly wishing to reach this population, one would need to define it demographically, decide where (which locales) best to make contact and how best "to speak" to such a population. One might use a targeted marketing campaign, such as is very common today in many large businesses which want to reach unserved new markets.

3.) From our examination of "lawyers in libraries" in several towns across Maine, we observe that "volunteer" lawyers do not appear in many town libraries. The "L in L" lawyer volunteers (out of 3,100 Maine Bar members) are few in number ,and there is a limited donation of time. In several libraries there is only one lawyer for 2 hours at the end of one day. For example one Maine city of 21.000 population had one 2 hour session scheduled from 5:30 - 7:30 pm for the entire week, a fairly frugal, lawyerly service donation. We have to ask,what miracles of law are accomplished in 10 - 15 minute appointments, over 2 hours, with even the most skilled lawyer or the most fast talking client? Typically volunteer lawyers spoke briefly at the start of the scheduled time, and there are handouts of "legal resources" which list free and low cost services, such as are posted on the Maine Judicial Branch web site. Public attendance in some instances was a total of 3 people, but notices, advertising this program, in several instances, seemed to be last minute postings in the newspapers or the paper's online version. The volunteer lawyers seemed pleasant enough, but because of their areas of special practice, were often less informed in other legal issues beyond their practice interests. They could only explain and provided very general information but avoided any direct legal advice. For those Maine libraries with no program, we wonder why? Is it because of lack of interest on the part of the majority of the 3,100 Bar members? Is it due to negative feeling on the part of Bar members about the value of the program? How is "access to justice" improved by the "L in L" program? Most importantly, does this effort have any impact on the statistics?

4.) We have to say that the "L in L" program does no harm, but we'd ask, does it do any good for the public who seek access? In our opinion, this program has serious problems of focus and design. If it desires to reduce the huge statistical problem of "lack of access to justice", it is embarrassingly inadequate and superficial. To learn from this past week's experience, do any of the program's sponsors plan a post-program evaluation? Besides our assessment, does the "access to justice" committee intend to do any form of program assessment? We suggest, based on our observations, that you need either to re-design this program top to bottom, or scrap it  With regret, we have to say, as the "L in L" program stands at the moment, it does nothing that we can see to improve badly needed "access to justice" in Maine.

Mainers are still waiting for "access to justice".


    Jerome A Collins

Within about 30 minutes Justice Andrew Mead replied back:

From: Andrew Mead
Sent: May 11, 2016 10:13 AM
To: J & M Coll
Cc: "Stephen D. Nelson Esq" , SenDavid Burns , Mary Ann Lynch*** , "Day, Avery T" , gkesich, jharrison, sdolan
Subject: Re: Fw: Access to Justice: Lawyers in Libraries?

Dr. Collins -

Thank you for your note. I will pass your comments along to the New Lawyers Section of the Maine State Bar Association. The New Lawyers Section has taken over the administration of the program.

My original vision for the program was to have volunteer lawyers available on a given day--perhaps the first of each month--at every public library in the state. The lawyers would be available to give generalized advice and refer folks to legal services organizations and private lawyers as appropriate. The program would be directed at individuals in the poverty and modest means economic categories, but no one would be turned away from the sessions. The overarching goal is to connect more people with legal representation.

Unfortunately the scope of such a program renders it administratively unfeasible without the creation of a fully staffed organization to run it. Accordingly, the current program, limited in scope as it must be, continues to evolve as a pilot program. The biggest challenge is getting the word out. Most folks who would benefit from speaking with a lawyer simply don't know that lawyers are available to meet with them in some libraries on Law Day.

It is my hope that the program will continue to gain traction as public awareness grows. The lawyers and the libraries continue to be committed to it. I agree that the current Lawyers in Libraries program is a very small initiative in contrast to the enormous need, but we need to pursue every possible avenue to improve access to justice. For the individuals who did connect with legal services as a result of the Lawyers in Libraries, the program was a success for them.

It is my hope that the New Lawyers Section will continue this initiative (which it undertook only very recently) and grow it to the point where public knows that libraries can be the crucial link between folks who need legal representation and the lawyers who can serve them.

Thank you for your continuing interest in access to justice issues.

A. Mead

Lawyers in Libraries was developed as a result of the "Khoury Report" which was commissioned by the Justice Action League (JAG). As part of the recommendations Lawyers would volunteer once a year on Law Day in libraries to offer legal service and in certain circumstances legal advice. This was part of a plan to bring access to justice to a growing number of consumers who were in desperate need of legal help and guidance.

It is not known how effective the Law Day - Lawyers in Libraries is. Simple math shows that for 2015 an estimated 900-1000 could be helped for the time allotment of 15 minutes per client. Is 15 minutes once a year enough time to help consumers who need greater access to justice? Or is this a way for lawyers to find new clients who need legal representation?

MeGAL is working for Family Court reform. In 2015 there were 17,065 people in Family Court who struggled with access to justice. Who for what ever reason could not afford to hire a lawyer or keep one through to the end of their case. If you have had issues with Access 2 Justice (A2J) we encourage you to contact your representatives to let them know. You should also get involved with change and can start by contacting us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or finding us on Facebook.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Will Parents (Pro se) Be Given the Same Educational Experiences as Lawyers - We Asked

We have sent several letters to the Judicial Branch regarding the course which was being offered by the York County and Maine Bar to its members. We asked whether or not the Judicial Branch had any plans to give the same type of educational experience to parents ( especially those who are Pro se ) as they would benefit from the wisdom of lawyers, Guardians ad litem and judges who spoke on April 29, 2016.

The Judicial Branch's response follows. Please keep in mind that this is an un-edited version:

The non-response from the Judicial Branch is in itself a response to the concerns that parents - especially those which are Pro se - continue to be discriminated by various forms of legal entities. That we do not deserve the same knowledge as lawyers, Guardians ad litem and Judges.

In 2015 there were an estimated 17,065 parties who found themselves in Family Court as a Pro se lawyer/ litigant. It would be safe to say that almost all of these people would benefit from the same kind of guidance and education that the privileged lawyers and Guardians ad litem received during the educational session. To be able to learn from judges what you need to do to win your case would have been worth the time.

We encourage you to educate our representatives with the experiences you have had in Family Court. A dysfunctional, adversarial system that has in practice no checks and balances. If you would like to become involved or have a story to tell please contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or find us on Facebook.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Judicial Branch is Silent on The New World of GALs for Pro se

Several weeks ago when we learned about an educational experience being offered by the York Bar to its members concerning the new landscape of Guardians ad litem. We asked the Judicial Branch whether a similar experience was going to be offered to those parents who might find themselves in court Pro se. These parents we felt deserved the same kind of knowledge as lawyers - maybe even more so.

Three weeks later and we have still no response from the Judicial Branch - prompting us to send one last piece of correspondence on the matter. This was sent on April 25, 2016:

Mary Ann Lynch, Esq
Maine Judicial Branch

Dear Ms Lynch,

Three weeks ago I wrote you to ask if the Maine Judicial Branch had plans to educate 'pro se' litigants in Maine family courts about "The New World of GALs"? The Maine Bar is providing lawyers with a course of instruction on the new dimensions of this topic on Friday, April 29th. Three Maine judges are listed as participating in this educational offering for lawyers.

It seemed to many people with whom I've spoken that fair play would suggest that the 'pro se' majority (75%- 17,065 people) in family court need educational enlightenment on this matter as well. They are already at a significant disadvantage in court as non-lawyers. Absent education about GALs will further stack the deck against them in family court.

Does the Judicial Branch have any plans to address the educational disparity on the topic of GALs for 'pro se' litigants?

If you prefer not to reply to my query directly, would you consider offering enlightenment to the public on this topic via the Portland Press Herald or Bangor Daily News? It is an important dimension of "access to justice for all".


Jerome A Collins.

If we receive a response it will be published. It is our feeling though that the Judicial Branch will remain silent. That silence is deafening and speaks volumes as to the very problems we as parents face in court.

MeGAL through education is bringing about reform in our dysfunctional Family Courts. If you are a parent who has had a trying experience in court we encourage you to become involved. You can start by contacting us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or finding us on Facebook.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The New World of GALs - Will Pro se Lawyers be Invited?

Friday April 29, 2016 the Maine and York  county Bar will be holding an educational session titled "The New World of GALs".

The program is supposed to provide the tools needed for professionals to engage the best practices and to assist families going through child custody. It is being sold to area judges, lawyers and Guardians ad litem.

For parents who are representing themselves has this valuable course been marketed or even mentioned to them? Probably not - yet it is this very population ( 2015 - 17,065 case where there was at least one Pro se lawyer/litigant ) who should be attending.

We questioned the ethics and value of this course in correspondence with the Judicial Branch:

Mary Ann Lynch, Esq
Maine Judicial Branch

Dear Ms Lynch.

There has been great interest on the part of 'pro se' litigants  in the  York Bar's upcoming educational session, "THE NEW WORLD OF GALS", for Lawyers, Courts and GALs. We wonder whether the Judicial Branch has plans to provide some equal public education on this topic for 'pro se' litigants? Clearly, everyone in court, lawyers, judges, GALs and 'pro se', logically need the same information base on this important topic. Knowledge is a tool for everyone, and, as we know, knowledge is power.

There is particular interest in the panel at the end of the session in which several active, Maine judges participate. From the program agenda, these judges appear to offer a "how to" tutorial to the professional attendees about several topics. One topic to be addressed by the judges on the panel seems especially instructive and useful, coming from judges: "how to lose a case". In an adversarial contest, this "how to" ought to give an edge to those who have received instruction from these judges. Will the judges also be instructing 'pro se' litigants in "how to lose a case" at some point - or is this instruction exclusively for lawyers and GALs?

There is also the interesting matter of the post-conference reception, programmed for almost 2 hours. As this sort of thing goes at professional conferences, it is usually a useful opportunity for bonding, for fellowship and for professional gossip - a relaxing, fun time for bench and bar - and GALs. How do judges, if they participate in the reception, preserve their professional objectivity, their future courtroom impartiality? Can they put aside this bonding, fellowship and conviviality for an unbiased presiding over litigation involving 'pro se' "strangers" with whom they've never had a drink? Would these same judges come to a cocktail party gathering of 'pro se' litigants, if invited? The 'pro se' group is, after all, the majority player in family courts: 75% to 25%.

Sorry to burden you with our concerns, but the conference - to our eyes - might appear to unbalance the "scales of justice" in several ways, unless the Judicial Branch has plans for equitable teaching of 'pro se' litigants about "The New World of GALs", including, judicial instruction in "how to lose a case" and the useful opportunities for conviviality and bonding with all of the players at the end of the session.

It's about the "new normal" majority of 'pro se' in family court. Can it be made to work so all have "access to justice"?


Jerome A Collins.

MeGAL works towards reforming the Family Court system through legislation and education. As a parent who has been abused in the system we encourage you to become involved. Your first step in doing so is to contact us at MEGALalert@gmail.com or finding us on Facebook.

Flicity Myers GAL

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The New World of GALs for Lawyers and Courts (and GALs)

Several years ago Chief Justice Saufley told us that there was a problem with consumers of judicial services receiving access to justice (A2J). At that time the statistic she used was that 74% of cases in Maine Family Courts were Pro se. In 2015 that represented 17,065 cases.

We agree that there is a huge problem.

On Friday April 29 the Maine and York County Bar are presenting a all day course called "The New World of GALs for Lawyers and Courts (and GALs)" which covers a variety of topics and explores the new "paradigm" for lawyer, magistrates and Guardians ad litem. What is left off are those who represent themselves - the Pro se litigant or maybe the Pro se lawyer. Of course anyone is invited and if you are lucky enough not to be a member of the bar the cost to you is a cool $245.00 - if you have it.

Is this the way to help the 17,000+ litigants who happen to represent themselves. We don't think so and we ask the President of the Maine Bar how this course helps the self represented?

Stephen Nelson, Esq
President Maine Bar

Dear Mr Nelson,

Re "New World go GALs"

Most "consumers"  who have been through family court for divorce and custody - both 'pro se' and with a lawyer, and who have had the experience of a GAL, are deeply interested in educational events for lawyers and others who work with GALs. We are especially on the alert when we see the title of a CLE, "The New World of GALs". Everyone wants to know the nature of lawyer education about GALs - and what is "new". Will it be significant learning?

Please, let me, as a non-lawyer, former educator share a few thoughts (and some perspective) on this upcoming educational offering for the Bar. As a former educator with curriculum development experience, I look at educational offerings from a structural viewpoint, and ask the following questions: for whom is the offering designed, how will it help the intended student, what is one seeking to accomplish/teach (educational goals), who set these goals, how will you know goals were achieved, will there be learning measurement or just opinion, will this teaching last beyond the presentation, say, in 6 months, 1 year? All of these classic, structural questions are aimed at determining the quality and value of an educational program. I offer the following thoughts about the April 29th program, because of their potential unintended consequences on both attendees and indirectly, later on those who are "consumers" of court services.

I hope that my comments might help the York Bar (and others) to consider a few "blind spots" in program design, and, as the poet Robert Burns put it: "to see counsels as others see us".

1.) The April 29th CLE appears to be an educational offering for those members of the "divorce bar", who will represent the 25% of litigants in family courts, who can afford a lawyer. As far as one can determine, it hopes to provide those lawyers who attend with additional "tools" for the paying clients' benefit.  Perhaps unintentionally, it will further the already significant gap in legal information between the 75%  'pro se' litigants and the 25% represented by the divorce bar. In this regard, the admission price for 'pro se' litigants to attend as auditors, $245.00, is a guaranteed deterrent for most 'pro se' litigants. The price (for "consumers") alone sends, a perhaps unintentional exclusionary message. One has to ask, Don't 'pro se' litigants, the overwhelming majority, need the "new" information about GALs too? It raises some very interesting "ACCESS TO JUSTICE" issues for everyone. As they say, knowledge is to be power.

While your CLE, in our opinion, might not be a very effective teaching model for anyone, the public deserves a chance to look and evaluate, on their own, the quality and value of lawyer CLEs. Their observation may well be the only evaluation of this educational product. Further, they will directly experience the impact of the fall-out from such education in court - for better or worse.

2.) Given the recent, very extensive public contention about GALs in Maine, we are also struck by the total absence of 'pro se' speakers or "consumers" of GAL service, presenting their perspective, as individuals or on panels. There are two speakers who present a 1 hour sociological, "cultural competency", perspective. They include 6 sub-topics in 1 hour, between the 2 speakers, covering culture, poverty, family structure, etc. In a 1 hour presentation by 2 people, with 6 sub-topics to cover. Evenly dividing the time between the two speakers,  this might allow, say, 5 minutes per sub-topic, per speaker. So much for "sociology". Can this sort of presentation - even with highly skilled teachers - be anything other than superficial? It risks taking an important topic and reducing it to "sound bites", "pop sociology", or meaningless tit bits of information of limited value as "working tools" for a member of the "divorce bar". It also puts some of your 75% 'pro se' opponents in the position of being exotic "sociological specimens" that require a series of 5 minute sociological  explanations to make them understandable to legal audiences.

Pity the poor psychologist who also speaks for an hour and is advertised as covering 8 sub-topics. By our calculation this is 7.5 minutes per sub-topic. Psychological enlightenment in 7.5 minutes? The same problem applies here: good topics; not enough time to teach anything meaningful or useful. Both sociology and psychology are subjects about which students spend years acquiring professional knowledge, skill and experience. 7.5 minutes?

In all fairness, might it not be more valuable to the lawyer attendees to get them thinking about their own cultural traits that may impair their functioning with non-lawyer litigants, say, the sociology of lawyers, their cultural blind spots, their unconscious biases, their family structure, their beliefs in what is normal, their cultural values? But, this too would require more than 7.5 minutes. A micro brief sociological presentation about anyone, lawyer or clients of the most diverse sorts, will dehumanize, marginalize or stereotype them. Brief sociology or brief psychology presentations are not a substitute for authentic presentations by real people who have gone into the system bare - with no legal tools?

3.) One of the topics mentioned in the program is: "how to lose a case". In divorce and custody cases which we hear about, there is much emphasis on winning or losing in legal "combat". A "zero sum game" is a tragedy for any child caught in the middle of a gladiatorial courtroom combat - with or without GALs. We have asked, is a traditional adversarial model a benefit to any child in any divorce?  Does GAL's role enhance or diminish the "win/lose" model? What is the responsibility of the lawyers, GAL's and judges in reducing prolonged, inter-party conflict, discouraging contention between parties in divorce and custody and reducing time (and cost)? Where is the CLE instruction in dealing with an opponent who is not a lawyer in a fair, ethical, non-gladiatorial way?  Lawyers  have a big role in promoting or discouraging contention, and many would say that the financial incentives of billable hours promote "wars and battles".

4.) The (for many) "hot button" topic of "judicial discretion" in adhering to the "new GAL rules" is another very important problem that appears to be ignored. The "new world of GALs" may be fine and good, but will the "old world of judicial discretion" render the "new world old"? It has been observed by 'pro se' litigants - not infrequently - that judges often have only a general idea about rules for GALs and don't adhere to them. Will judges follow the "new" rules"? What if they don't? Will anyone care - or notice?

There are some very "spiffy" topics covered in this CLE, for which specialist professionals spend years in study. A one hour session on psychology or sociology with numerous sub-topics at about 7 minutes per subject, is woefully inadequate and potentially harmful. One fears that the psychology and sociology in an hour's presentation of "sound bites" will re-enforce already rampant junk science stereotypes and further lawyer and GAL biases.How will those who designed the course know what lessons (good or bad) have ben learned, or … whether they are unintentionally teaching stereotyping and bias??  Doesn't the education committee need to move this kind of session beyond mere ritual of required attendance at CLEs?

In closing, poet Alexander Pope's words, come to mind:

A little learning is a dangerous thing.
Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain
And drinking deeply softens us again.

Yours for deeper educational draughts on the "new" world of GALs.

Jerome A Collins

MeGAL is working to correct the problems in Family Court and the Guardian ad litem system. If you have had issues we would encourage you to become involved to bring about change. The may be accomplished by contacting your state representative and by contacting us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or finding us on Facebook.

Monday, March 28, 2016

MeGAL's response to the Judicial Branch on DOJ Letter Concerning Illegal Enforcement of Fines and Fees

The final salvo in the exchange between MeGAL and the Judicial Branch. After this we have not heard back from the Judicial Branch.

From: J M Coll
Sent: Mar 22, 2016 10:38 AM
To: "Mary.Ann Lynch"
Cc: Justice Andrew Mead , "Stephen D. Nelson Esq" , "Avery Day Esq." , Hank Fenton , Sen Burns , Beth Ashcroft , Barry Hobbins
Subject: Re: DOJ letter to State Judges re practices that run afoul of the US Constitution: 3-14-16

Mary Ann Lynch, Esq
Government and Media Counsel

Dear Ms Lynch,

Thanks for your prompt reply to my query about Maine courts' standing with regard to "practices which run afoul of the US Constitution", noted in the US  DOJ letter of 3-14-16. I respect your professional belief that the DOJ letter was intended for all 49 US court systems - other than Maine's, which they did not included. I admire your loyalty to Maine, and your heartfelt belief that "Maine Courts are the way courts should be", to paraphrase a popular marketing slogan for Maine.

You and I had this conversation before, last Spring on the editorial pages of the Portland Press Herald. Your statement of rather similar beliefs was on the PPH editorial page on April 3, 2015; my reply was in a letter to the editor, dated April 16th, 2015, which I include herewith. The public comments that follow the letter are worth reading as well, as they express sentiments contrary to those you are expressing.

2015-04-16 Letter to the editor: More assurances on Maine’s court fees would be welcome    

And once again, I would have to differ with you in public. The DOJ letter expresses concern about the social problems caused by abuse and impoverishment of people who use US courts (excluding Maine you might  claim), as a result of fines and imprisonments that "run afoul of the US Constitution". The letter is about courts which are causing public harm and the 7 points discussed in the letter have applications that can readily be applied to many cases that we know personally, and, yes, here in Maine.

Further, I would ask you, "How do you know that Maine courts are 'off topic' for the DOJ letter - that Maine's courts are not at all what they had in mind when they sent it to all 50  states?" Is there a DOJ certificate that excepts Maine from the intent of the letter? What is your data for your claims of near  perfection?  Have you a window on those Maine courts or a video camera that allows you to bear witness to what actually goes on inside family courts? We do have witnesses to what goes on - lots of them.  And there are recordings. But rather than debate our "truth" versus yours, I would ask, why has there been such strong opposition from the Judicial Branch (and allies) to allowing an evaluation, a legislative  audit or an  OPEGA study of even selected  courts? or a systemic evaluation by out of state experts, or even a simple, inexpensive  "consumer satisfaction survey"? The opposition to notions of any objective assessment is resounding every time we raise the issue. The need for "evaluation tools" is not about "mean-spiritedness" to the Judicial Branch; these, after all, are the universal tools of modern management all over the world. The defensive protection of courts from data-based oversight by you and others appears intellectually dishonest (no court system is "perfect", not even in Maine) and it implies that the public oversight has no role in seeking relief and improvement.

Your remarks about the DOJ letter and your position that Maine is excluded from their concerns, challenge us to approach the DOJ people who wrote the letter and ask them directly, is Maine excluded from their concerns? We'd be pleased to give them some brutal Maine cases and see how the DOJ evaluates their Constitutional cleanliness.

Yours for improving even alleged "perfection".

Jerome A Collins, MD

Kennebunkport, Maine

MeGAL is working for reform of the States Family Court and court vendors through education and legislative action. We encourage you to become involved in the process. To do so please contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or find us on Facebook.

Previous emails:
2016-03-27 Reply from Maine's Judicial Branch on DOJ Letter Concerning Illegal Enforcement of Fines and Fees 
2016-03-27 To Maine's Judicial Branch on DOJ Letter Concerning Illegal Enforcement of Fines and Fees

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Reply from Maine's Judicial Branch on DOJ Letter Concerning Illegal Enforcement of Fines and Fees

On March 20, 2016 we queried the Judicial Branch on whether or not they were aware of a recent letter published by the Department of Justice.The Judicial Branch responded a day later that they know but - the issues brought forth in the letter did not apply to Maine.

From: "Mary.Ann Lynch"
Sent: Mar 21, 2016 2:52 PM
To: J & M Coll
Cc: Justice Andrew Mead , "Stephen D. Nelson Esq" , "Avery Day Esq." , Hank Fenton , Sen Burns , Beth Ashcroft , Barry Hobbins
Subject: Re: DOJ letter to State Judges re practices that run afoul of the US Constitution: 3-14-16

Dear Dr. Collins:

This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter regarding the recent U. S. Department of Justice March 14, 2016 letter. 

First, an identical letter went to all 50 state courts.  These letters were sent without regard to the state of the law in the individual states.  As a result the public has been seriously misled at least with respect to the law and  fine default procedures in Maine.  

Maine is not among the states or court systems that jail defendants for the non payment of a court fine.  In Maine, a person will only end up in jail if:

1) they are seriously in arrears on fine payment AND they have disobeyed or ignored a court order to come to court and explain why they are in default under 17-A, Section 1304; or
2) The court finds that they have the ability to pay, and intentionally and knowingly refused to pay, otherwise known as an "unexcused default."
An unexcused default finding can only be made after a hearing in court under Section 1304. 

I cannot tell you how much time Maine judges spend working with defendants who are in default of their criminal penalties. The time and resources spent working with defendants on their fines is considerable.  The courts will order payment plans as low as $10/month, and permit community service, where appropriate,  in lieu of fines. 

Frankly, Maine judges are diligent in carrying out the laws enacted by the legislature, which sometimes include minimum mandatory fines that some defendants will have great difficulty ever paying. (Try paying a $1000.00 fine plus surcharges, if you are living on a disability or SSI income of  $800/month.)  The judges use as much discretion as they are allowed by law to work with defendants to come up with individualized payment plans, and still maintain respect for the law. 

It is discouraging to see the US Department of Justice paint all courts with the same broad brush that they have painted Ferguson,  Missouri. One would hope that federal officials would research the facts first, before aiming a broad missive at courts which are working hard to uphold the law.

Mary Ann Lynch, Esq.
Government and Media Counsel
Administrative Office of the Courts
Maine Judicial branch
P.O. Box 4820
Portland, ME 04112

"The administration of justice is the firmest pillar of government" -  George Washington

It should be noted that "unexcused default" seems to be a term only related to the State of Maine. When a search for what a legal definition of the term was done all we could find was related either to the purchase and sale of an item or Title 17.

With the first paragraph after the two line items we are told that the courts take great pains to work with consumers of Justice. While this may be true it has been witnessed just the opposite. We have numerous stories from people which contradict what the Judicial Branch are telling us.

MeGAL is a grass roots group working to educate and promote legislation to reform Family Court and Guardians ad litem (court vendors). You may get involved by emailing us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or find us on Facebook.

2016-03-27 To Maine's Judicial Branch on DOJ Letter Concerning Illegal Enforcement of Fines and Fees

To Maine's Judicial Branch on DOJ Letter Concerning Illegal Enforcement of Fines and Fees

In Family Courts parents are often faced with paying crushing fees for court vendors (Guardians ad litem) and lawyers or face jail time. The Department of Justice has indicated that this practice must stop in all courts as it infringes on the rights of citizens of this country and consumers of judicial services. We present here the first in a series of email exchanges between MeGAL and the Judicial Branch about this topic.

From: J M Coll
Sent: Mar 20, 2016 1:37 PM
To: Mary Ann Lynch*** , Justice Andrew Mead
Cc: "Stephen D. Nelson Esq" , "Avery Day Esq." , Hank Fenton , Sen Burns , Beth Ashcroft
Subject: DOJ letter to State Judges re practices that run afoul of the US Constitution: 3-14-16

Mary Ann Lynch Esq
Maine Judicial Branch

Dear Ms Lynch,

I am in receipt of an important letter from the US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Office of Access to Justice, dated March 14, 2016. It is signed by Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division and Lisa Foster, Director Office of Access to Justice. The letter is addressed to those responsible for the assessment and enforcement of fines in state and local courts. Its stated aim is to address common practices that run afoul of the United States Constitution due to illegal enforcement of fines and fees in certain jurisdictions, and it speaks to the harm caused defendants by these practices.  Can you confirm that the Maine Judicial Branch has received this letter and is prepared  to act on its specifics.

It is a lengthy letter- and fairly detailed; however, here are a few of the specific issues in very skeletal form:

1.) Courts must not incarcerate persons for nonpayment of fines without first conducting an indigence determination.

2.) Courts must consider alternatives to incarceration for indigent defendants unable to pay fines or fees.

3.) Courts must not condition "access to judicial hearings" on prepayment of fines or fees.

4.) Courts must provide meaningful notice and, in appropriate cases, counsel she enforcing fines and fees.

5.) Courts must not use arrest warrants and license suspensions as a means of coercing payment of court debt when individuals have not been provided constitutionally adequate procedural protection.

6.) Courts must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release.

7.) Courts must safeguard against unconstitutional practices by court staff and private contractors.

I am including a pdf  link that connects to the original letter from DOJ.

I would add that, in my opinion, the letter needs widespread circulation as a matter of professional and public education.  It also seems to call for immediate action to amend practices, which "run afoul of the US Constitution".

When- may we expect implementation of this DOJ call for "corrective action" from Maine's Judicial Branch?


Jerome A Collins, MD

Kennebunkport, Maine

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