Taking a break Friday morning from its multi-day meeting in Indianapolis, Legal Services Corporation held a series of public discussions showcasing how collaboration can amplify the impact of legal aid.
Representatives of the legal community and nonprofit organizations shared their insights into how civil legal aid can partner with nonlegal groups and the benefits such partnerships can bring during the LSC’s Access to Justice Forum. The public event was held in the Indiana Supreme Court’s courtroom, which was filled almost to capacity.
Opening the forum, LSC board chairman John Levi highlighted the growing problem of more people needing civil legal assistance at a time when funding for legal service providers is near an all-time low. Individuals and families not being able to get help with their legal needs because legal aid does not have the resources is “totally unacceptable,” he said.
Access to justice, Levi said, is a core American value, but democracy is eroded and the rule of law is undermined when people cannot get legal representation.
However, affordability is not the only obstacle to getting an attorney. The first panel discussion, “Holistic Approaches to Serving Legal Aid Clients,” pointed out that many times people may not realize their problem has a legal remedy.
In Indianapolis, the John Boner Neighborhood Centers and Tangram, a nonprofit providing support and services to people with disabilities, have been collaborating with Indiana Legal Services to identify clients who have legal problems and connect them with legal aid attorneys. The Boner center and Tangram said prior to partnering with ILS, they would make referrals but either the clients did not have the transportation to get to legal services, they were too intimidated to go to a law office, or they would begin moving forward with their case but then get lost somewhere in the process.
Having ILS attorneys available and ready to help the clients has been a game changer, said Peter Zubler, director of operations, community and intake at Tangram. Legal aid is not strictly an add-on service, he continued, but truly a way to disrupt the cycle of poverty.
The second panel discussion, “Access to Justice and the Opioid Epidemic,” continued the theme of collaboration. Panel members noted the opioid crisis and substance abuse disorders, in general, require a multi-faceted response that includes civil legal services.
Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush, who co-chairs the National Judicial Opioid Task Force, said the courts have a role in addressing this crisis because the judiciary is among the top entities referring addicts to treatment. But, she noted, the courts cannot do the work alone.
Judges, Rush said, have to take off their robes and sit around the table with service providers in the community to find solutions.