News and Tribune

May 27, 2010

Help is on the way: Clark County Legal Self-Help Center to launch; Indiana Chief Justice pleased with programs


CLARK COUNTY — Clark County is not unique in offering legal help to its residents, but the way it’s being done is fairly new to Indiana.

The launch of the Clark Legal Self-Help Center, which will officially open the first week in June, was announced at Clark County Circuit Court on Wednesday afternoon.

Being one of only three or four similar programs throughout the state, the goal has been to provide legal direction and assistance to residents with moderate to low incomes. The unique characteristic of Clark County’s program is it is based out of the Clark County Government Building.

“One of the differentiating features of this is that people will know there’s a place to come, a person to talk to and it’s a place they know about,” said Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard, who was in attendance for the opening. “It’s the courthouse — they sort of naturally associate it with the idea of having a legal problem.”

There will be no actual legal services offered at the center, but instead volunteer attorneys — along with second- and third-year law school students from the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law — will tell those who come in for help where to go and how to find assistance.

“What we plan to do is be a resource in this building, face-to-face, to provide guidance, definition and options,” said Circuit Court Judge Dan Moore, who has been at the head of the effort to open the center.

Local pro bono chapters that operate within the county will still have a leading role in offering free legal assistance to individuals that qualify, but having an additional outlet for those seeking advice has become necessary.

“No matter how many volunteer attorneys we have taking cases, together with those dedicated and passionate advocates for access to justice for the poor ... the demand will always outstrip the resources,” said Chuck Dunlap, executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation. “It’s because of this reality that I think this new self-help center is so important.”

Another avenue the center will help provide assistance for is individuals that wish to represent themselves.

“We have seen an increasing number of self-represented litigants,” said Melissa May, Indiana Court of Appeals judge and chair of the Indiana Pro Bono Commission. “This program today ... has the capability to exist with the ease of access for these litigants and also for those who need legal representation.”

Increasing need was a common theme among the speakers — in order for residents to be able to address minor issues and volunteers to steer them in the right direction.

“This self-help program will add yet another level of needed assistance for Hoosiers who need help,” May said.

In addition to offering access to legal pamphlets — paid for with donations — and options for online resources, lists of attorneys in Clark and Floyd counties will be provided if it is determined the individual needs legal advice.

Although much of the information is out there to be found by those who need legal assistance or have legal questions, keeping up with the law and knowing where to look is not always as apparent.

“Surprisingly, even in an Internet age, there are plenty of people ... that could have found [their] way to the thing [they] needed on the web, but it just hadn’t occurred to [them],” Shepard said.

According to Shepard, there is no shortage of Hoosiers seeking that type of legal advice.

“The number of people who come in without a lawyer is ticking upward all the time,” he said. “In the old days, we use to send people to the library. This is a more modern, more targeted advice. This really has an impact in the everyday lives of citizens.

“It is, I think a genuinely gratifying moment that the county government, the profession, that the judges of this county and surrounding counties are willing to try to make it easier to accomplish in the end the thing that we say we’re about, which is substantial justice.”