For the last decade, trial courts across the country have increasingly faced the tough legal, logistical, and ethical dilemmas that often accompany cases involving unrepresented litigants (URLs). Without sufficient knowledge of court processes and procedures, URLs may miss important deadlines or fail to take key actions associated with the handling of their case. Judges and court staff can become frustrated at an influx of improperly completed filings from litigants who need legal advice the court cannot provide.
In these lean fiscal times, many Indiana courts are also challenged by an increasing number of litigants who have limited English proficiency (LEP), including those who are deaf or hard of hearing and can communicate only through American Sign Language.
In response to these concerns, during summer 2015 the Indiana Supreme Court made available more than $450,000 in Court Reform Grant funding to help counties design programs to reduce the burden unrepresented litigants can place on courts, as well as to ensure equal access to the courts for LEP litigants.
The Court Reform Grant program is funded through federal reimbursements for previously uncollected expenses associated with Title IV-D enforcement actions. Since 2008, the Indiana Supreme Court has awarded more than $2.44 million in grant funding to nearly 100 trial courts and judicial agencies for projects involving unified court administration, multi-jurisdictional problem-solving courts, court performance measurement, innovative technological infrastructure, and several other types of projects.
During the 2015 grant cycle, the Court received 17 applications, seeking nearly $600,000 in funding. Eight counties or district programs received grants ranging from $9,000 to $50,000 to implement court facilitation programs for people of limited means. These programs utilize attorneys or senior judges who work outside the courtroom to assist URLs in filling out paperwork, identifying specific issues in their legal matters, and making referrals to pro bono or modest means counsel when necessary.
An additional seven counties received grants ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 to better assist LEP litigants. Grant proposals ranged from running a telephone line to the courtroom for the use of Language Line, to hiring and training a full-time court employee to work as an interpreter in civil and domestic matters.
The Court was impressed by the caliber of proposals it received during this year’s grant cycle, and is confident that those programs selected for grant funding will improve the level of services provided to litigants, as well as serve as models for other counties who wish to implement these types of programs.