Abraham Lincoln is widely credited with a quote that goes something like this: “A man who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
Despite that sage advice, a growing number of people across Indiana are showing up in court every day to represent themselves. That trend is driven by any number of reasons — not the least of which is what some see as the prohibitive cost of legal services.
There’s “a huge demand” for free or low-cost legal services in the civil arena, said Chuck Dunlap, President & CEO of the Indiana Bar Foundation, which operates the education and referral website IndianaLegalHelp.org. The site had more than 275,000 visitors last year.
“And a lot of people,” he said, “don’t know that they need legal help.”
The self representation Lincoln warned against is called “Pro Se,” which is Latin for something along the lines of in one’s own behalf. The approach is most common in non-criminal disputes over things such as money, contracts, housing and family matters.
Unlike criminal proceedings where a judge can often assign a public defender for people who cannot afford an attorney, in civil cases there’s no guarantee of legal representation. Not even for those who truly cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
But that doesn’t mean you have to go into court without legal help — or, as Lincoln implied, being a foolish client. A variety of free or low-cost legal services are available to Hoosiers. In some instances, that assistance may be limited to answering questions or advice; but some sources can also help you in court.
Here are some examples. Just be aware that the help is for civil cases and many services are income based, so not everyone may qualify.
Indiana Legal Help
This online service is a project of the Coalition for Court Access, which was created by the Indiana Supreme Court in 2016 “to provide a focused and comprehensive organizational structure for Indiana’s civil legal aid programs.” The coalition’s website provides information on free and low-cost help in areas across Indiana for people with non-criminal issues — involving things like family, housing, consumer, healthcare, benefits, employment and educational services.
Indiana Legal Help also offers a link to the “free legal answers” site that is available to qualifying Indiana residents. To see if you qualify for help, fill out the short online questionnaire: https://indiana.freelegalanswers.org/
Indiana Legal Services
Phone: 844-243-8570, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday-Friday
Apply online: https://www.indianalegalservices.org/applyonline
Indiana Legal Services, a not-for-profit law firm, is the “largest provider of free civil legal assistance to eligible low-income people” in Indiana. The assistance is aimed at Hoosiers “faced with legal problems that harm their ability to have such basics as food, shelter, income, medical care or personal safety … such as family law where there is domestic violence, housing, consumer law, access to health care, and access to government benefits.” It does not handle any criminal matters.
Eligibility guidelines vary for different services and programs. In general, the ILS website says: An applicant is financially eligible if that person’s income is within 125% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. As an example, an applicant who has two people in her household (including herself) can earn up to $1,638.58 per month and still be financially eligible for ILS services.
Indianapolis Legal Aid Society
Helping Hoosiers for 80 years, the Indy Legal Aid Society’s goals have remained constant: “To provide consultation, education, advice, and representation across a wide range of legal issues, most frequently in the areas of housing, guardianship, adoption, and family law.”
The society’s website says it focuses on assistance “that benefits the most vulnerable members of the Central Indiana community: the elderly and disabled, children and their caretakers, and low-income individuals who otherwise would not receive legal services.”
Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic
Apply online: https://www.nclegalclinic.org/legal-help-online
The faith-based clinic, with offices in Indianapolis and Ft. Wayne, provides services statewide under the philosophy “everyone should have access to justice regardless of their income.” The website says the goal “is to free our clients from the legal burdens that have kept them from flourishing.”
Indianapolis Bar Association
IndyBar, the Indianapolis Bar Association, offers free answers to legal questions, but does not provide representation. You can submit your question online from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday. Just log on to either website above and click on the “chat” button on the lower right side of the page. and a lawyer will respond.
For those who prefer to talk rather than type, the association offers a free, monthly Legal Line, where people can call to get answers to their legal questions. It is open from 6-8 p.m. on the second Tuesday of every month (except December). The number is 317-269-2000.
Other free advice and clinics are offered periodically during the year. More information can be found by clicking the “Info For The Public” tab at the top of the IndyBar website.