Rush again urges $1 million boost to civil legal aid

The Indiana Supreme Court made its case to the Legislature again this week for an additional $1 million in the state’s next biennial budget to support Hoosier civil legal aid.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday that the court is seeking $500,000 in both fiscal years 2020 and 2021 for civil legal aid grants. Noting the judiciary operates on less than 1 percent of the entire state budget, Rush said the civil legal aid funding request is the first time in recent history the court has asked for a significant funding increase.

Despite 8,400 Hoosier attorneys reporting 400,000 pro bono hours, and despite the various pro bono services offered by civil legal aid organizations across the state, Rush told the committee there are still civil litigants who are turned away from pro bono help because of a lack of resources. Those clients face myriad civil legal issues, the chief justice said, ranging from foreclosures to guardianships to expungements and more.

Further, the need for civil legal aid has been magnified by the nationwide opioid crisis, Rush said. In response, civil legal aid initiatives such as medical-legal partnerships have been developed to ensure Hoosiers with drug addictions can get the treatment they need while also getting help with the civil legal issues that have followed from their addictions.

According to a recent study, Rush told the committee that every $1 invested in civil legal aid has a $6.70 societal impact.

“(The funding is) to build capacity to open up the doors to the courthouse for people that find themselves in civil trouble that are of limited means or in poverty,” the chief justice said.

Asked by Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, how civil legal aid funds are disbursed, Rush said there’s a list of about 40 organizations that receive grant funding on a pro rata basis based on the number of individuals they serve. Those organizations are statewide, she said, in areas such as Indianapolis, South Bend and Evansville.

Given the nature of many civil cases, such as family law issues, Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, opined that the courts have seemingly taken on a social services role in the Hoosier community. While Rush said the judiciary does not seek out the social issues that come into Hoosier courts, she also said judicial initiatives, such as problem-solving courts, are intended to help judges play their unique role in responding to social issues.

“A lot of societal issues end up in the courthouses,” Rush said. “So doing problem-solving courts and the procedure of how we do a case, if we know we can get a better outcome, I see us doing that. But we don’t go shopping for the social ills that come in.”

Currently, the state allocates $1.5 million to civil legal aid, an amount that has not changed since 2007. In his proposed budget, Gov. Eric Holcomb once again recommended an allocation of $1.5 million to civil legal aid in FY20 and FY21.

Rush’s presentation to the Appropriations Committee also included highlights of other Supreme Court initiatives. Many of those initiatives are technology-related, with the chief noting electronic filing and the Odyssey case management system give Hoosier attorneys and litigants 24/7 access to the courts. In 2018, was visited roughly 60,000 times per day.

The chief justice also pointed to court tech initiatives launched in response to requests from the Legislature. She noted the creation of the online child abuse registry, where some 13,000 names are logged.

Rush was joined at the presentation by all four Indiana justices. Her full presentation can be viewed here.

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