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Court's community-service policy is unenforceable

January 25, 2011

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s order that an indigent small claims litigant perform community service in lieu of paying a filing fee, holding the informal local rule requiring community service is unenforceable.

Tippecanoe Superior Court 4 has a practice of requiring community service – typically 16 hours – before the court will grant a waiver of the filing fee or have a hearing on the merits. Darlene Baca, who is disabled and indigent, wanted to sue for the return of her security deposit from her former landlord. Since she couldn’t afford the filing fee, court personnel told her she could perform the standard 16 hours of community service. She contacted Indiana Legal Services, who argued on her behalf that Baca couldn’t perform community service.

Judge Pro Tempore Gregg S. Theobald suggested she try Meals on Wheels and advised Baca’s attorney that the attorney would be responsible for helping her find four hours of community service to perform. The court did allow her claim to be filed but held in abeyance the setting of a hearing date pending Baca’s performance of community service.

On interlocutory appeal, the appellate court reversed the lower court’s order in Darlene Baca v. RPM, Inc., c/o Patty Brown, No. 79A02-1006-SC-655. The Tippecanoe Superior Court’s practice is essentially a standing order because it hadn’t been adopted as a local rule as set forth in Indiana Trial Rule 81(B). Subsection (A) of that rule includes a specific prohibition against standing orders to regulate local court or administrative district practice. As such, the practice is unenforceable, the judges ruled.

Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote in a footnote that the Court of Appeals didn’t undertake to render an advisory opinion as to whether a substantively similar rule, if duly promulgated, would contravene the Open Courts Clause of the Indiana Constitution or Indiana Code Section 33-37-3-2.
 

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