LOCAL COLOR/The spirit of the law
When Tom McDermott ran for mayor of Hammond, Ind., he did it the old-fashioned way: knocking on doors. As part of his platform, he proposed creating a municipally run legal aid clinic. Less than one year after McDermott’s January 2003 inauguration, Hammond became the first city in the country with a legal aid clinic that operates as a city department.
“For the same reason you need health clinics, you need legal clinics,” McDermott says. “People don’t think about that, but as a lawyer, I saw it first hand.” McDermott initially recognized the importance of free legal assistance when he was working during law school as a student attorney at the Notre Dame Legal Aid Clinic. Drafting a will for a man who was within hours of dying was one of the first cases that had a significant impact on him. “This man couldn’t afford an attorney. I knew that we were doing a good thing by helping him,” McDermott says.
Some city officials initially questioned whether a need for the clinic existed, in part, because Indianapolis-based Indiana Legal Services (ILS), a nonprofit law firm, provides free legal assistance throughout Indiana. ILS, however, is able to meet only 10 percent of the need in Lake County. After the city clinic opened, 41 people received assistance within the first two weeks of operation.
To qualify for aid, Hammond residents must live below the poverty line or be elderly with little or no earned income. Of the city’s 85,000 residents, many fall within one of those categories. So far, the most common cases seen involve child support enforcement, domestic violence, landlord-tenant disputes, senior citizen contractor fraud and advanced directives for those who are terminally ill and do not want to be put on life support. The clinic does not handle criminal cases.
Kris Costa-Sakelaris, a former magistrate for the Lake County Superior Court System, set up and now runs the clinic. “As a judicial officer, I couldn’t be an advocate for anyone, but I would see people who couldn’t afford legal services and knew they probably weren’t getting a proper day in court,” she says. “We want to empower our citizens, and the clinic does that by giving them access to the court system.”
Using discretionary funds from Hammond’s riverboat casino revenue, Costa-Sakelaris gutted and redesigned an unused portion of city hall for the clinic. “I wanted to create an atmosphere where people didn’t feel like they were being cheated by coming to a place that was dreary or where people were unfriendly,” she says. Plans for the project began in January, and the ribbon-cutting ceremony took place on October 29.
Along with Costa-Sakelaris, the clinic employs another full-time attorney and an assistant. To handle all the cases, McDermott requires all attorneys who work for the city to volunteer their time for the clinic. In an ongoing program, interns from Valparaiso University School of Law also work at the clinic for credit each semester. “It’s great for the students because they get hands-on experience and get to see every day people with every day problems,” Costa-Sakelaris says.
McDermott believes that other cities could replicate the clinic’s concept. And at an operating cost of approximately $200,000 per year, he believes it is well worth the expenditure. A self-described young idealist, McDermott says he is not one for creating a lot of government programs, but he believes the government should support people in times of need. “I hope that one day this will be a common practice across the United States,” he says.