Southern District proposes mandatory pro bono

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A proposed rule change would for the first time obligate lawyers to provide mandatory pro bono service to litigants in civil cases filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, the court announced Friday.

“Given that approximately 50 percent of the filings in this district last year were made by pro se litigants, the court has found it necessary to join the other district courts around the country that have instituted mandatory pro bono appointment programs,” Southern District Chief Judge Richard Young wrote in a letter to the federal district bar.

Young’s announcement accompanied a proposed rule change to Local Rule 87. Public comments on the change will be accepted through June 12. The court also established a web page regarding the change. Young said the rule “is designed to address the urgent and ever-increasing need to provide counsel for indigent litigants in certain civil cases.”

Under the proposed rule, the court would create a voluntary panel of attorneys who are willing to represent indigent litigants, as well as an obligatory panel that would be used when there are insufficient resources available from the voluntary panel.

“The Obligatory Panel consists of attorneys who have appeared in a threshold number of civil cases in this district during the previous calendar year,” the proposed rule says. The threshold number of appearances used to determine attorneys eligible for the obligatory panel will be based on the need for representation in a given year.

“No attorney will be obligated to represent an indigent litigant more than once during a calendar year,” the rule says, with narrow exceptions.

“It is the court’s goal to craft a program that will fulfill the needs of the district without placing an undue burden on the bar,” Young wrote in the letter to the Southern District bar. “I believe that Local Rule 87 strikes that balance.

“Local Rule 87 is a reflection of this court’s commitment to try to do justice in all cases. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” Young wrote. “Those attorneys who represent indigent litigants pursuant to Local Rule 87 will be providing a valuable service to their client, the court, and the larger system of justice.”

The chief judge also reminded members of the bar of their oaths: “I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless, the oppressed or those who cannot afford adequate legal assistance; so help me God.”

There is no mandatory pro bono rule in the Northern District of Indiana. Its Local Rule 83-7 says “Every bar member should be available to represent, or assist in representing, indigent parties whenever reasonably possible,” and says a judge “may direct the clerk to request that a bar member represent the indigent party.”

The Southern District proposed rule permits the court to pay authorized attorney fees but also permits attorneys to negotiate a fee arrangement with the litigant at the outset of representation. “If a fee arrangement is entered into that provides for fees other than those provided by statute, counsel must notify the court by filing a Notice of Fee Agreement,” the proposed rule says.

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