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Bill: Legal aid services can assess indigency

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Indiana lawmakers want the state's legal aid and pro bono programs to have one less hurdle to navigate through when representing indigent clients, agreeing that there's no need to always tie up court time in establishing indigency.

The unanimous House vote came Thursday on HB 1363, which is authored by Rep. Trent Van Haaften, D-Mt. Vernon, also an attorney with Bamberger Foreman Oswald and Hahn. The legislation provides that a clerk can waive any required fees or court costs on a civil action or petition for a guardian to be appointed, without a judge's approval, if that person is represented by a civil legal aid program or pro bono attorney that's already established indigency.

Designed to improve court efficiency by reducing the time spent on determining indigency, Van Haaften said courts generally waive filing fees even if they require a hearing for a plaintiff represented by Legal Services Inc. or a pro bono district. Those programs set their own standards and have comprehensive screening processes, and there is no need to duplicate the efforts or tie up court resources, he said.

Van Haaften said trial courts would have the option to step back in at any point and re-examine a person's indigency, if needed.

Fiscal research on the legislation notes that the number of people represented by a civil legal aid or pro bono attorney is not reported in the Indiana Judicial Report, though pro bono administrators and directors of legal assistance corporations report that the large majority of indigent plaintiffs are represented in divorce and child support cases. On average, the state's general fund receives fees between $104 in civil cases and $118 in probate cases, and local general funds receive between $32 in civil and $38 in probate, according to a fiscal impact statement.

The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration; Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, and Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis - both attorneys - have signed on as sponsors.

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