Johnson County Legal Aid
Writer / Alaina Sullivan
Stuck in a dangerous situation with little to no money, a woman desperately looks to escape her abusive husband of 10 years. She has no knowledge of the law or money, whereas he has enough funds to fully pay an attorney. What does she do?
She sees an advertisement in her local newspaper for something called a pro bono clinic where she can get free legal advice and apply for free legal help. Suddenly she sees the light at the end of the tunnel. She does not have to do this alone.
Attorneys throughout Indiana regularly volunteer their time and resources to handle cases for free (pro bono). Johnson County runs a countywide legal aid program—which is a one-woman show. Attorney Dannette Morgan donates her time, resources and energy to accept intake applications for help three times a month, handles cases on her own, and is the sole person responsible for assigning cases to volunteer attorneys.
Intake applications are taken on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month at 10 a.m. at the Greenwood Public Library and the third Tuesday of the month at the Johnson County Courthouse. Legal advice clinics are periodically held, as well, through the Johnson County Legal Aid program.
The positive impact the program provides Greenwood residents in need cannot be matched. They are offered the services and advice they otherwise would not receive due to financial constraints.
“As a single working mother, I relied very heavily on our local district legal aid,” said one Greenwood resident who participated in a 2013 legal aid clinic. “It was extremely helpful in that not only did I receive the specific advice I needed, but I also was educated on how to find resources on my own in the future. I still apply much of what I learned then to my situations today, as well as pass on the benefits of legal aid to others in need.”
Throughout time, the caseload has grown tremendously as more residents need legal services due to hard economic times. However, like many legal aid programs, Morgan runs into one huge roadblock. It may take several months to locate an attorney, which often leaves individuals without help.
Despite the large number of attorneys in the area, only a handful accept legal aid cases. The reasons can be numerous, from limited staff time and financial resources to attorneys not handling the type of cases that come through. Many attorneys shy away from family law matters due to the nature of the cases, as well as the length of time these cases traditionally take.
Because of the difficulties Morgan encounters in assigning cases, the type of cases handled are limited to general civil legal issues. This, however, does not include disability, criminal, custody or driver’s license issues. The most noticeable of this is child custody. Arguably, many domestic situations involve some child custody matter, whether it is simple or complicated. Where do these people go?
According to the Indiana Pro Bono Commission’s Annual Report for the district that covers Johnson County, in 2012 only 41 Johnson County attorneys handled 32 pro bono cases, donating a total of 622 hours. The average rate for attorney services in the area is approximately $200 per hour. At this rate, this means almost $125,000 in free legal services was given.
Of these 32 cases, Morgan handled 12 of them, donating over 242 hours of what would be considered billable hours. The remaining cases were assigned to other attorneys who took one to two cases at a time. However, the wait list of cases is lengthy, causing people who need immediate legal help to wait for months at a time to be assigned an attorney. Many do not receive one in time. Morgan is simply one person, and despite her best intentions, she cannot take on all of these cases on her own.
It is a situation that is quickly becoming dire. At some point in time, Morgan will retire.
The number of attorneys who take pro bono cases remains stagnant. Young attorneys are being asked to step up and take the lead in these programs to ensure all receive equal access to justice. Who will take over? Will these programs survive? Only time will tell.