When you walk into Shane Eddington's office at the Whitewater Valley Pro Bono offices in downtown Richmond, the scene is a little like something out of a John Grisham novel: the heroic lawyer working away at all hours amid piles of legal documents in a windowless office with just one assistant on staff, trying to help the most vulnerable members of our community who couldn't otherwise afford legal services. Divorces, custody battles, landlord-tenant disputes, managing the assets of the departed and other various issues come across his desk all day long; most of the people he sees can't afford to pay much of anything, but really need his help.
Even if Eddington's role as Executive Director of the organization isn't as dramatic as you'd find in a legal thriller, the need for reduced rate or free legal services in our area has never been greater, and the prospects for funding sources to meet those needs are changing rapidly.
In the past, pro bono legal services in Indiana (including the District 9 office that serves Wayne County) were funded largely through the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program run by the Indiana Supreme Court and the Indiana Bar Foundation. Basically, lawyers around the state would pool together their deposits from paying clients in a shared bank account that would accumulate interest, and that interest income would be used to cover expenses for pro bono work. You may have heard that the global economy hasn't been doing so well in the last few years, and when your bank account interest rate is approximately zero, it's hard to earn much money on it. Pro bono offices around the state found out recently that IOLTA funding would cease at the end of 2011, leaving them to revert to the State's plan for filling in pro bono service coverage: one part time person trying to handle all of the cases across many counties.
"We can do better," Eddington told me. The Whitewater Valley Pro Bono Commission, a 501(c)3 non-profit, has decided to try to meet the legal needs of low-income community members in Wayne County through the support of donations and the time and efforts of their legal team and board. If you're at 125% of the Federal Poverty Level ($13,612 gross yearly income for a single person), the Commissions's services will likely be at no cost to you. If you're at 200% of that level, your out of pocket expenses are capped at a reasonable amount. The process starts with a fairly simple application form available at their 712 E Main Street location in Richmond.
The Commission is having a luncheon tomorrow, Thursday December 15th, to share more information about their work and to raise some funds. They also recently received a grant from the Wayne County Foundation to help keep operations going as they seek out longer term sources of income. You can contact them at (765) 935-5053 for more information.
I would certainly rather live in a world where access to legal advice that might make a significant difference in someone's ability to live a happier life (or, more pressingly, keep their home or fight abuse) doesn't depend on their own personal wealth. While the court system provides public defenders for someone caught up in a criminal case, there's no such protection in civil cases, but the stakes can sometimes be just as high. The reality is that people do find themselves in situations beyond their personal control, and sometimes good legal counsel does make all the difference.
I hope we can explore sustainable, long-term solutions for meeting these community needs that don't depend on fundraising. But for now, I'm grateful that the Whitewater Valley Pro Bono group is working to meet this need in our community today, and I hope they continue to receive support along the way.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I'm on the board of the Wayne County Foundation which recently awarded a grant to the Commission, and I'm part of an LLC that rents out the office space the Commission uses.)