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- COVID-19's Impact on Access to Justice
Friday, April 17, 2020
"Justice only for those who can afford it is not justice for all.
In fact, it is not justice at all.”
In fact, it is not justice at all.”
Loretta H. Rush, Chief Justice of Indiana
By Pamela Guerrero
The civil legal aid movement in the United States got its start in the mid-nineteenth century when a civic group of German-Americans in New York City began providing legal help to new immigrants. Legal aid groups, often affiliated with bar associations, developed in major cities around the U.S. including Indianapolis, where the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society started in the early 1920s. Civil legal aid programs developed much faster starting in the 1960s, when the federal government began to fund civil legal aid as part of the War on Poverty, led by President Lyndon Johnson. Pilot projects began across the country, and in 1974, Congress created the Legal Services Corporation, which now provides funding to civil legal aid programs that provide services in every county in the United States and several territories.
Over the years, cases brought by civil legal aid programs have achieved many legal victories, establishing rights for tenants, welfare recipients, consumers, and other low-income Americans. From time to time, there have been political fights about funding civil legal aid, and federal funding now comes with considerable restrictions. In the current political climate, there is bipartisan support for civil legal aid, and Congress has provided more than $400 million in funding in the current federal fiscal year.
However, this funding is insufficient for Indiana legal aid providers to serve low-income Hoosiers seeking legal aid. Prior to the public health emergency, 1.15 million Hoosiers lived below 150 percent of the federal poverty line. In a typical year (without the effects of COVID-19), four out of five low-income families experience at least one civil legal problem—this averages out to more than 765,000 legal problems that low-income Hoosiers face in a year. These challenges – and the need for legal counsel – are likely to grow exponentially during this crisis.
Yet a 2019 study published by Indiana University Public Policy Institute found that the current legal aid system in Indiana was unable to meet the need before the crisis; it estimated that 30 percent of the cases for which households sought assistance - and 96 percent of the nearly 800,000 civil legal problems of low-income households faced - were not served at all by the Indiana legal aid system. The top three legal areas in which unrepresented parties often appear are family issues (73.9 percent), consumer and finance issues (64.4 percent) and rental housing (52.0 percent). Legal aid providers listed insufficient resources as the primary reason for turning down cases.
The 2019 study also found that needs were increasing prior to the crisis. Relying on a 2018 survey of legal aid providers, the study found that providers observed an increase in need for services in the areas of expungement, rental housing, family law, and consumer and finance issues. Additionally, nearly nine in ten legal aid providers anticipated that demand for legal aid services will greatly increase in 2019 and 2020 - and this projection does not take into consideration the aftereffects of COVID-19.
It is not surprising, then, that 93.8 percent of legal aid provider surveyed believe that if the current level of financial support remained unchanged, they would not be able to fully meet low-income Hoosiers' needs. Due to insufficient public funding, the study projected they would be unable to fully serve more than a third of those seeking assistance - over 16,884 civil legal problems - which represents nearly half of all problems presented to the legal system. In other words, Indiana legal aid programs already struggle to meet the demand for legal services, and without a substantial increase in financial support, it is likely that many more Hoosiers will face civil legal challenges unrepresented after the COVID-19 crisis.
Given the complexity of civil matters, unrepresented parties receive worse outcomes than people who do receive legal aid. The 2019 IU Public Policy Institute study reports that unrepresented parties were never or rarely successful in legal issues and reported a fail rate in 65.9 percent of disability cases, 57.6 percent of employment matters, 57.6 percent of veterans' affairs, and 49.4 percent of medical services. In addition, the U.S Department of Justice also reports that having access to civil legal aid can significantly change the outcome of cases. A randomized control trial in housing eviction cases found that 51 percent of tenants without legal representation lost their home compared to 21 percent of tenants with legal representation lost possession of the rental house. Representation matters.
Beyond better outcomes for low-income Hoosiers, legal representation also reduces the burden on our courts and on taxpayers. Indiana courts carry the burden of unrepresented parties; courts report expending additional time and assistance to unrepresented parties. The deficiency of legal representation leads to case-progression to be delayed and to more contested hearings. The extra time these cases take increases public expenditures and represents a mismanagement of taxpayers' dollars.
While more help is needed, there are entities working to increase access to legal counsel. In 2016, the Indiana Supreme Court created the Coalition for Court Access to improve access to Indiana’s civil justice system for Hoosiers with limited financial resources. The Coalition for Court Access coordinates all Supreme Court-related programs designed to provide and improve the availability and quality of civil legal aid to low-income Hoosiers. The Coalition is composed of judges, law school representatives, civil legal aid and pro bono providers, and members of the Indiana State Bar Association. These organizations and individuals work together across the State to close the justice gap by providing legal aid. Currently, one in three civil legal problems for which low-income households seek assistance is fully served. In 2017, Indiana’s legal aid system closed 24,000 cases. Ensuring access to legal aid improves outcomes for those who need it and it can save public dollars in the long term.
The Indiana Civil Rights Commission (ICRC) is another important entity that provides Hoosiers with access to justice. The ICRC aids individuals in filing complaints without representation while guiding clients through the process. The Indiana Civil Rights Commission enforces Indiana’s civil rights laws, working to ensure equal opportunity for all people regardless of race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, familial status, disability, or veteran status. The Indiana Civil Rights Commission protects people against acts of unlawful discrimination in the realms of housing, employment, public accommodations, education, and financial credit. There is no fee for these services, and anyone may file a complaint. The Commission investigates the discriminatory cases and determines if there is substantial evidence or no evidence of discrimination. The Indiana Civil Rights Commission also offers mediation for both sides involved in a discrimination case to resolve their dispute without having to go to court or waiting for the discrimination investigation to finish. To participate in mediation, both parties must agree to the neutral and impartial mediator’s assistance in reaching agreements. However, the Indiana Civil Rights Commission is required to attempt conciliation after it finds substantial evidence of discrimination. If no compromise is reached, the case moves forward to the civil legal system, and an ICRC attorney is assigned to the case.
The Indiana Institute for Working Families understands the importance of access to legal counsel. While organizations in our state are working to close the justice gap, they cannot do it alone. Substantial funding increases are needed to provide sufficient legal aid to many low-income Hoosiers, especially as COVID-19 is likely to increase need as people encounter new issues with areas like consumer and finance, rental housing, and family law.
Congress should include increased support for legal aid in the next round of COVID-19 recovery packages. We encourage you to support access to justice right now by asking your members of Congress to support legal aid funding and clicking here to donate to Indiana Legal Services or another local legal aid provider!
We have put together a list of legal services that are available across the state with the hope that this information will reach Hoosiers in need and enable them to seek support in these complicated and stressful matters. Legal aid is available for lower-income households in the areas of family law, consumer law, senior law, discrimination, housing, public benefits, immigration, criminal, and general civil, juvenile, domestic violence, and other issues.
These websites can also help Hoosiers find free legal advice and lawyers in their areas.
- Coalition for Court Access- https://indianalegalhelp.org/
- Free legal access- https://indiana.freelegalanswers.org/
- Find a lawyer in your area-https://www.zeekbeek.com/inbar
- File a discrimination complaint with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission https://www.in.gov/icrc/3131.htm
- Seek assistance with housing discrimination from the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana: https://www.fhcci.org/
- Indiana Coalition against Domestic Violence provides legal assistance for victims of domestic violence: http://icadvinc.org/direct-legal-services/
Our gratitude to Jon Laramore of Indiana Legal Services for providing information on the history of legal aid for this blog post.