Access to Justice, 0321 MEBJ, 36 MEBJ, Pg. 40

PositionVol. 36 1 Pg. 40


No. Vol. 36 No. 1 Pg. 40

Maine Bar Journal

March, 2021

MICHELLE GIARD DRAEGER is the Executive Director of the Maine Justice Foundation as of May 2020. A native of Maine, much of Michelle’s career has been spent in public service including Pine Tree Legal Assistance, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington DC and Boston, and serving as an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Maine.

Maine Justice Foundation Maintains Steady Course as Pandemic Impacts Civil Legal Aid

Where were you in the middle of March 2020 when the world as we know it literally changed overnight? I am certain I will never forget that moment when my children’s schools shuttered unexpectedly, worldwide travel came to a halt with many people racing to airports to get back to their homelands before borders locked down, and the many “non-essential” businesses that fuel our economy were forced to close or operate with drastic restrictions.

Indeed, the biggest one-day drop in the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average happened on March 9. April continued the run of can-you-believe-it devastating news and numbers. Schools, courts and businesses were almost completely closed down during a wild spring of calamity. The Transportation Safety Administration reported that passenger traffic on some days in April had dropped by as much as 95 percent compared to a year earlier. By early May, unemployment claims were “literally of the charts,” according to Bank of America’s head U.S. economist, with the New York Times noting the loss of “20.5 million jobs as the unemployment rate jumped to 14.7 percent, the worst devastation since the Great Depression.”[1] In our own neighborhoods, we saw restaurants and many other services fighting to survive as walk-in customers disappeared almost overnight.

May I take a leap here and say that we are all looking forward to 2021, albeit with cautious optimism? 2020 was a year like no other in our lifetimes, and it unfolded like scenes in dystopian movie – with a pandemic that spread sickness, death, and economic devastation around the world like wildfire.

Amazingly, parts of the economy and our lives have begun some level of recovery, and vaccines are beginning to arrive, although whether we can call the speed of distribution “warp speed” remains to be seen. The COVID-19 numbers continued to skyrocket after the holiday season, and the winter weeks and months ahead will surely remain difficult. Some of us will suffer the loss of a job or the closure of a business, or the serious illness of a loved one—each bringing its own sense of devastation and loss.

What does this mean for those who depend on civil legal aid for their life and death matters?

The need for civil legal aid in Maine is growing because poverty in Maine is rising dramatically. Between February and December 2020, Maine had a net loss of over 48,000 jobs. Although the unemployment rate stabilized and even showed modest improvement in October and November, the true number may be twice the reported figure because so many Mainers have stopped looking for work and are uncounted by the unemployment rate.2 Anecdotal but consistent evidence from local food banks indicates that food insecurity and hunger are increasing.

More Mainers are also at serious risk of eviction, a frequent cause of need for civil legal aid. The extension of a federal moratorium has delayed but will not stop a potential food of evictions. There is a growing backlog of thousands of eviction cases. As of this writing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has extended the moratorium to March 31.

While the pandemic has heightened demand for legal services, and strained the legal aid providers’ budgets, the funding picture is mixed. I wrote to you in July about legal aid funding and can provide this update. First, the 2020 Campaign for Justice achieved a much better result than we thought possible when the economy was falling through the floor last April; I will report further on that below.

Second, income from a significant source of funds for legal aid providers in Maine, Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA), appears to be stabilizing after a precipitous downward slide.3 IOLTA funds decreased sharply last spring as the Federal Reserve dropped interest rates to near zero. Nothing affects...

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