With her son whisked to Utah by her ex-boyfriend, Cassie Kaehr needed a lawyer.
She had driven to Salt Lake City in 2007 to plead her case for custody, she said, but her 2 1/2 -year-old son remained with his father. A single mother with little income, Kaehr had no money for an attorney to fight a custody battle.
“Free” and “lawyer” are words that perhaps most people would not put together. But along with supporting the U.S. and Indiana constitutions and promising to be honest, the oath taken by Indiana attorneys says this:
“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.”
Kaehr said her mother got online and found a local group called the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Northeast Indiana. Kaehr called, qualified for assistance and was referred to a lawyer who took her case for free.
“I got a lawyer and fought it, and now I have permanent custody of my son,” she said. “And it’s all because of them.”
Since 1852, pro bono work has been part of the Indiana oath of attorneys. Since 2002 the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Northeast Indiana has promoted the idea locally. David Van Gilder and Yvette Gaff Kleven, leaders of the group from the beginning, have taken it to heart for years.
For their pro bono service to Allen County and the surrounding region, the two Fort Wayne lawyers are being recognized with the state’s highest honor: the Randall T. Shepard Award. A ceremony is set for Oct. 18 in French Lick.
The award comes as a continued sluggish economy keeps more in poverty and the sometimes long wait for free legal assistance leaves many people to take on legal affairs themselves, Van Gilder and Kleven say.
“In my view, having somebody wait a long time to have representation in court is sometimes the same thing as not getting justice.” Van Gilder said.
Helping the needy
The Volunteer Lawyer Program has three full-time employees and one who works part-time fielding calls and connecting those needing help with local attorneys. The group has a $220,000 budget.
Initially the program received 3,700 calls a year for help. By 2012 the number climbed to 11,000, according to Terry McCaffrey, executive director of the program. The increase started about 2009, as the Great Recession continued to affect people and jobs, he said. McCaffrey estimates local lawyers bill $150 an hour to $300 an hour.
Most of what the agency does involves bankruptcies and family law – divorces, paternity, guardianships and other issues. About 80 percent of callers don’t know what they need and are referred to other agencies, McCaffrey said. Those eligible must have household incomes at or below 200 percent of the poverty level.
The group takes on about 1,200 new cases a year.
“A lot of them are not financially eligible; some of them don’t have a legal problem,” Kleven said of the numerous calls. “And if they don’t have a legal problem then they are referred to a social service agency or some other agency that can help them to address their problem.”
Van Gilder, 54, and Kleven, 55, said they both consider pro bono work part of their professional duties and point to their faiths as another motivation.
“Some of my most pleasant clients are from this program,” Van Gilder said. “They realize that they’re getting something that they otherwise would have to pay for and they are just cooperative.”
Van Gilder puts in about 75 to 100 hours of pro bono service a year; Kleven helps 12 to 15 bankruptcy clients annually and organizes bankruptcy clinics for the Volunteer Lawyer Program.
McCaffrey cites the duo’s “relentless pursuit” of fellow attorneys for increasing the number of attorney volunteers over the years.
Much of the program is funded from interest generated by lawyer trust accounts, Van Gilder said. But interest has not been great since the recession began, so that is supplemented by asking law firms and individual lawyers for money.
“It’s gone well,” Van Gilder said. “I think that’s part of why we’re being recognized. We’ve knocked on a lot of doors, sat down with law firms and explained why this is a good thing for them to do.”
The need is great.
The increase in people who are eligible for free or reduced-fee legal services has grown about 70 percent in the last five year, the two lawyers said. More kids and families are in poverty.
“It isn’t that we turn clients away,” Kleven said. “It’s that sometimes they have to wait a little while to be assigned to a lawyer.”
More lawyers wanting to do pro bono work would help, they said. Of 800 lawyers locally, about 130 are active in pro bono work, McCaffrey said. Prosecutors aren’t eligible and those lawyers with a specialty outside of family law or bankruptcies would not likely be comfortable or able to practice in those areas, Kleven and Van Gilder said.
“I would like to see more lawyers,” Van Gilder added. “I think it would be better if (there were) more lawyers, because I think the need in Indiana is just massive.”
You don’t have to convince Cassie Kaehr. Six years after her legal headache began and more financially secure, Kaehr still raves about the program and the lawyer who helped her.
“And I still have him to this day,” she said, “although I pay him.”