The Indiana Supreme Court has formed a new commission to address the problem of Indiana residents who cannot afford legal services. But rather than giving attention to the clients, this group will focus on the nonprofit agencies that provide the assistance.
A group of 20 legal professionals from across the state worked on the proposal for the creation of the Indiana Commission to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services during the summer of 2012 and submitted a recommendation to Chief Justice Brent Dickson, who signed the order in September 2013.
Members of the workgroup were quick to emphasize the purpose of the commission is not to mandate directives or meddle in agency operations. The broad goal is to enhance and expand cooperation between the many legal aid organizations in the state.
Yet, the introduction of another group does bring concerns of having too many state-level groups addressing the problem of access to justice. There’s already the Pro Bono Commission that focuses on getting private attorneys to volunteer to help indigent clients, as well as the Indiana Supreme Court Committee on Unrepresented Litigants which tackles the increasing number of people who go to court without attorneys.
Chuck Dunlap, executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation and member of the access workgroup, said the question was raised of whether another commission was needed.
Looking at legal services across the state, the workgroup did see a distinct role for the new state body. At present, each organization and committee is working in its own geographical area providing services, but no group is taking a broad view to find ways for the agencies to collaborate, share ideas and improve efficiencies, Dunlap said.
Clark Circuit Judge Dan Moore said the existing organizations wanted to help with coordinating the agencies, but it was too much work to do in addition to fulfilling their own responsibilities. The new commission is needed because right now, “everybody is rowing their own boat,” Moore said, and they should be at the same table talking.
Moore, who also served on the workgroup, believes the commission can not only get the different legal services to collaborate but will also be able to make appeals to foundations and the Legislature for additional funding.
“This is a brilliant move by the Indiana Supreme Court to create this commission,” Moore said.
As an example of cooperation within the legal aid community, Dunlap pointed to Evansville.
In Vanderburgh County, the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Southwestern Indiana, the locally funded Legal Aid Society of Evansville, and Indiana Legal Services Inc. have been collaborating and coordinating their efforts for many years.
A key part of the cooperation is having the Legal Aid Society and ILS handle all client intake. This prevents the different providers from burning valuable time getting the same information and keeps the clients from getting frustrated by having to explain their problem over and over.
Scott Wylie, president of the Evansville Bar Association, estimated he could spend five hours each week doing as few as 10 initial client interviews to determine needs and assist with placement.
Once the intakes have been completed, the three service providers choose the cases they have the resources to handle.
He acknowledged the organizations do not always agree and can get passionate, but they continue to work as a team because they respect each other.
Wylie hopes the new commission will be able to help replicate this model of cooperation among legal service providers in other counties. By viewing the system as a whole rather than in single pieces that the service agencies see, the commission will be positioned to foster coordination and new ideas for better ways to integrate the different providers.
“In a system that must be rationed, we must be as efficient as possible so we can meet the needs of each and every client,” Wylie said.
Getting the different providers to work together has always been a goal, said Norman Metzger, executive director of Indiana Legal Services Inc. However, with no structured means of enabling that cooperation, the goal has never been accomplished.
Turf wars can break out between the agencies if they feel resources are being taken from them and given to someone else. Metzger recalled a legal needs report issued in 2008 was immediately interpreted as an attempt to undercut the Pro Bono Commission.
To avoid interagency battles, Metzger said the access commission will have to address the concerns by making everyone feel secure and offering assurances that nobody will be put out of business. Then the commission will be able to focus on finding ways to improve the system and prevent having to turn away so many people who need a lawyer.
The Supreme Court must appoint the 17 individuals to the commission. Members are slated to include practicing attorneys, judges, and academics as well as representatives from nonprofits outside of the legal community and from the fields of business, finance and labor.
Also on the commission will be representatives from four different legal service providers in the state along with the chair of the Pro Bono Commission.
Once the members are appointed, they will go through a strategic planning process to develop a more detailed agenda for how the commission will work and what it will do, according to Dunlap. The specifics of formulating a structure and putting together a plan were left to the appointees.
To help facilitate the creation of the Indiana access commission, the American Bar Association appropriated a $7,500 grant. But the money could be lost if members have not been appointed and the strategic planning process has not started by the end of the year, Dunlap said.
Despite the many months that passed before the Supreme Court issued the order, Dunlap is confident the Supreme Court will not let this commission languish. Chief Justice Dickson has made access to justice his highest priority and this commission fits with that goal, Dunlap said.
To Wylie, this is the “absolutely perfect” time for the commission to be formed. The economic recession has depleted resources from the service providers, making them as small as they can be and still exist.
And as the economy recovers and the number of people needing free legal help declines, the commission can rebuild the provider system to be smarter and more effective.
In 2007, the Volunteer Lawyer Program had more funds and staff available to serve fewer clients, Wylie said. As the recovery continues, the commission can lead the improvements so the agencies will eventually be able to serve more clients on the same budget they had in years prior to the recession.•