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Legal aid program undergoes big change

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HANCOCK COUNTY — The pathway to  free legal services for low-income Hancock County residents might get a bit smoother this month as local intake and screenings move to a statewide legal organization.

Effective Thursday, the Hancock County Bar Association joined with the Access for Justice Program under the Indiana Pro Bono Commission, a project of the Indiana Bar Foundation.

The new coalition will eliminate the in-person screenings that were previously conducted twice monthly at the Hancock County clerk’s office on the second floor of the county courthouse. Instead, those looking for legal counsel can use an online clearinghouse, said Christi Brock, executive director of the District 6 Access to Justice program, which includes Hancock County among several other east-central Indiana counties.

Residents seeking free legal representation will now be able to complete an online application or call the District 6 office in New Castle to request a hard copy through the mail.

The completed applications will then be reviewed by Brock and then referred to participating attorneys if guidelines are met, she said.

“One of the big changes will be that we won’t be doing the live intake twice each month,” Brock said.

The new process will ease staffing problems in some counties and improve access to the system for those unable to get to the live intake interviews.

“Many times, individuals that need free legal services have a difficult time with transportation,” Brock said. “This should allow us to screen cases more efficiently.”

For years in Hancock County, the local bar association screened legal aid applicants, referred cases to a roster of local attorneys and administered the process of providing legal aid to residents who could not afford it.

“That worked pretty well for a long time,” said Greenfield attorney Holly Lyons. “But then we learned about the agency with paid employees overseeing our county, and we decided to let it take over our legal aid.”

Only certain civil matters that can be handled in Hancock County are considered for referral, such as foreclosures, divorce, guardianship and landlord-tenant law. Applicants’ household income must be at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

“For a family of four, this would be about $29,500 in annual income,” Lyons said.

Lyons said there is a “surprising” need in the county for free legal representation, and Hancock Circuit Judge Richard Culver agrees.

“Certainly, there is a need within the county, particularly over the last several years with the housing crisis and the increased mortgage foreclosures. It’s put a number of families under tremendous financial stress,” Culver said.

Where paid public defenders provide a constitutionally mandated defense in a criminal case, there is no right to legal representation in a civil matter, Culver said.

Pro bono representation through the legal aid system is designed to fill that gap for the unemployed and working poor, he said.

Culver said the county bar association has historically been active in addressing the legal needs of the poor; however, with growing demand and continued advances in technology, the switch to the access program made sense.

Currently, 32 Hancock County attorneys have volunteered to accept pro bono cases, Lyons said, and the bar association is also exploring providing representation on a reduced or sliding-scale fee system.

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