Monday, July 2, 2007

New Job

I have been working at my new job as the Indiana Legal Services Area V Pro Bono Plan Coordinator for two weeks now. Area V encompasses Wabash, Miami, Cass, Fulton, Howard and Tipton Counties so I will be on the road a lot, which is something I enjoy.

Indiana Legal Services exists to try to bring together low-income people who need access to the legal system with attorneys who volunteer to do pro bono (unpaid) work. Most of us know that poor people who have criminal charges filed against them have a constitutional right to a court-appointed public defender. What is not so well known is that the same is not true for citizens involved in civil proceedings (divorce, custody, landlord-tenant disputes, debt collection, etc.) Our society may not consider that poor people have a guaranteed right to a lawyer in civil cases, but it does acknowledge that it desirable for them to have equal access to justice under the law, and that is where Indiana Legal Services comes in.

The big difference is that public defenders in criminal cases are paid by government funds so it is relatively easy to ensure that there are enough attorneys to meet the needs of the justice system. Pro bono lawyers volunteer their services for free. Their only motivation is the belief that poor people deserve legal representation too and the satisfaction of knowing they've help make our legal system as fair as it can possibly be.

I will be going regularly to each of the courthouses in Area V to do intake interviews with low-income people who have legal problems, then sending a summary of their case back to the Lafayette office where an acceptance committee made up of staff attorneys will screen it to see if they meet the criteria for referral to a pro bono attorney. If it does, I will then try to match the case to a volunteer lawyer. That is the gist of what my job will consist of.

Anyone who has had any contact with the legal system knows that people who come to court without the assistance of an attorney face a real disadvantage. Attorneys know the laws, the forms, the process, the precedents to inform their argument. Lay people know none of these things. They simply have to throw themselves on the mercy of the court. And though judges may want to be sympathetic, their job is to rule based on who proved their case legally. Judges, I have found, are some of the most supportive about expanding the legal services program in their counties. Ideally, judges would prefer that all who come before them, either as plaintiff or defendant, are represented by an attorney so each has a fair shake at pleading their case.

I got involved in a situation rather like this once. I rented an apartment in Zionsville and when I wanted to move back to Wabash, I called the management to see what the penalty was for breaking my lease. I was told I could give them a 30-day notice and pay an additional month's rent for the month after I left which would give them a "cushion" in case the apartment didn't rent right away.

Exactly the opposite happened. The manager called to ask if I could leave earlier than my notice called for because they had tenants eager to move in. This I did. The new people were hauling their possessions in as I was carrying mine out.

I moved back to Wabash and thought everything was fine until I received a court notice informing me that I was being sued by the apartment complex for $650 in "refurbishment fees". I barreled off to court on my own, confident that I would win because I had done everything right.

But the representative of the complex brought in receipts that proved how much they'd spent on paint to repaint my apartment and carpet shampoo to shampoo the carpets and bug killer and sprays to deodorize and kill my germs. They also had job orders to prove how much they'd paid a crew of workers to do all these things.

"But," I protested to the judge, "I know none of this was done because the new tenants were bringing in their furniture before I was even moved out!"

The judge told me he frequently had these people in his court with the same kinds of cases. He said he believed me and he really hated to rule against me. He pointed out (to dirty looks from the representative for the complex) that the company owned a whole string of complexes in the Indianapolis area. They also owned warehouses full of paint and carpet cleaner and wrote their own "receipts". They also employed the maintenance crews and produced their own job orders. He said that legally, they had proven their case. I ended up having to pay them the additional $650.

I don't know if an attorney could have helped me in this particular situation but at least, they might have advised me that the apartment people had the case so well wired that I was wasting my time to drive all the way to Greenwood to appear in court.

There are laypeople who volunteer as advocates for low-income people in other areas but it is illegal to practice law without a license So no one can do what a lawyer does except a lawyer. Low income people who need legal assistance are dependent on the good will of volunteer attorneys.