Law Student Outlook: Assessing legal needs of vulnerable populations in Indiana

April 18, 2018

Law Student Outlook By Francesca Camione and Amanda VaughnThis semester, we are working with our classmates through the Access to Justice Program to assess the legal needs low income and underrepresented Hoosiers face in their daily lives. This work is being incorporated into one of the three legal profession and ethics sections. The AJP is in its second year at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and is directed by Professor Victor Quintanilla. 1L students are now conducting research on the needs of Hoosiers in Lawrence and Monroe counties.

Students in our class are working with low-income and underrepresented groups including the elderly, the homeless, veterans, migrant workers, people with mental illness, juveniles and people who live in rural areas. Over the last few months— in our respective groups and counties — we have conducted legal needs assessments. We carried out national and local research through speaking with everyone from national experts to local legal aid providers, and the public. In our eyes, gaining the on-the-ground perspective by meeting with people on every level of service — from recipient to provider — has given our work, not only this semester, but also our future legal careers, greater meaning.

Homeless/housing insecurity in Lawrence County

One team in our class is studying the homeless population in Lawrence County. In fact, the category of people we typically think of as “homeless” is often more accurately described as housing-insecure. People often move around between family and friends’ homes, or in and out of shelters, rather than always sleeping on the street.

Most interviewees reiterated the same idea: in order to help the community solve their legal issues, society at large needs to start caring more about the wellbeing of housing-insecure people. Many of the legal needs devolve from broader problems in these people’s lives, tracing back to the instability they face every day. Some of the experts the team spoke with alluded to the idea that helping provide stability to housing-insecure individuals and giving them a purpose will provide them with a sense of hope that all too often is consumed by their unstable lifestyle. As a society, we should not blame these people for their own condition, rather take a sense of ownership of our treatment of them and do our part to make their lives a little easier.

Local and national experts told us that the common practice of criminalizing homelessness, such as making it illegal to ask for money or sleep in public, is ineffective and just adds another stress to these people’s lives by creating what is often yet another legal issue for them to deal with. One judge told us that just because he has the power to order a housing-insecure person to comply with orders, the person likely would not consider that legal issue a top priority because they are more concerned with where they are going to sleep at night.

Seniors in Lawrence County

Another group that the AJP touches are the elderly of Lawrence County. In meeting with service providers and senior citizens, a trend was astoundingly clear: nearly every unmet legal and social issue stems from the lack of independence that indiscriminately accompanies old age. For seniors, one may predict that the most pressing issues regard healthcare, but in speaking to service providers and seniors, this was not the case.

Due to a lack of independence, many seniors do not feel comfortable in their own homes, finding it difficult to use their kitchens, clean, or even leave the house due to their inability to modify stairs to accommodate ramps. As such, seniors often fall victim to fraud and forms of elder abuse that come with allowing someone in their home to provide those services.

Other social and legal issues that seniors report include gaining custody of their grandchildren and the need for assistance in drafting wills and establishing powers of attorney. Working on this project has helped to give perspective and meaning to our education and has highlighted the areas in which there are significant unmet needs that law students and lawyers can work harder to fulfill.

At the end of the semester, the student reports are being sent to The Coalition for Court Access.

“The Coalition for Court Access was created by Supreme Court order on May 17, 2016 to provide a focused and comprehensive organizational structure for Indiana’s civil legal aid programs,” according to the group’s website. “The 17-member Coalition will coordinate all Supreme Court related programs designed to provide civil legal aid to those with limited financial resources. The Coalition includes judges, law school representatives, civil legal aid and pro bono providers, and Indiana State Bar Association and Foundation members.”•


Francesca Campione and Amanda Vaughn are first-year law students at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.