Striving for equal access to justice

Every Hoosier is entitled to equal justice under the law. Unfortunately, the legal playing field is not always level — especially for low-income residents who cannot afford legal representation. When a landlord evicts, a credit card company collects, or a splitting couple contests custody or child support, often one party is represented by a lawyer and the other is left to defend himself against someone fully educated in the law.

Free civil legal aid levels the playing field. Indiana Legal Services represented more than 11,000 clients across the state in 2016. We helped ensure fair outcomes for families, tenants and consumers. We prevented homelessness, preserved homeownership, helped families get health care and veterans get benefits, and obtained protection for victims of violence.

But we couldn’t help everyone. Earlier this year, as part of a national effort sponsored by the federal Legal Services Corporation, Indiana Legal Services conducted a survey of the more than 2,300 people who sought our legal help in a six-week period. Of those, we fully served only 27 percent (622 clients). While we provided full representation in court or administrative proceedings for most of these cases, others were fully served just by providing an answer to a legal question, referrals to other resources, and advice about how to address certain situations.

In that same period, we had to turn away 24 percent (545 people), usually because we didn’t have the lawyers to serve them. We served, but not fully, another 41 percent of those who needed our help (951 clients), again because we lacked staff resources to fulfill the needs of those who seek out our help, especially to represent them in court.

And things may well get worse. Indiana Legal Services, like 130 other civil legal aid providers across the country, receives upwards of 60 percent of our funding from the federal Legal Services Corporation. If the current budget proposal passes through Congress, Indiana’s portion of LSC funding could be cut by more than $1 million.

A funding cut of that size means we will have to turn away thousands more low-income Hoosiers in 2018 who desperately need legal assistance to maintain a basic standard of living. And the real problems that often keep people from self-sustainability will go unaddressed: ensuring safety for domestic violence victims, assisting people who have been wrongly denied Medicaid or HIP 2.0, fighting illegal housing foreclosures and evictions, and protecting against unfair debt collection and wage garnishment.

How can we as a state address these issues, which in some courts already has reached the crisis point? The solution is likely to have many parts. The courts can employ personnel to assist the unrepresented correctly fill out paperwork and guide them through the maze of court appearances and filings. Individual lawyers can volunteer for those who can’t afford counsel. Bar associations can staff court-based help desks. But all of these solutions rely on two things in short supply: funding and volunteers.

And even if Indiana can mobilize these resources, studies have shown that volunteer efforts alone will be insufficient to address the need. Dedicated, expert lawyers, like those at Indiana Legal Services, are the most efficient method to address unmet civil legal needs of the low-income community.

The long-term solution must include diversification of funding sources to provide more dedicated staff at programs like ours. As we watch the Congressional budget recommendations unfold, we will continue to educate our legislators and the public about the importance and impact of our work; and we will continue to look for additional financial support in hopes of expanding programs for those in need, including financial contributions from lawyers and others who care about our work.

Regardless of what happens in Congress, the reality is it will take all these efforts — changes in the judicial system, additional volunteer efforts by lawyers, and increased financial support for civil legal aid — to improve our system to better address the civil legal needs of those who cannot afford counsel and to begin to approach the ideal of equal access to justice for all.

— Jon Laramore, Executive Director

Indiana Legal Services

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