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Attorney shortages in Indiana create ‘access to justice problem’

By Brandon Smith, IPB News | Published on in Crime, Government, Law, Politics
Many rural counties in Indiana have significant attorney shortages that are likely to worsen as current lawyers age and retire. (Courtesy of Noble County Courts)

Indiana’s growing attorney shortage is creating an “access to justice problem.”

That’s what state Supreme Court Chief Administrative Officer Justin Forkner told lawmakers at a recent study committee hearing.

The average years of service for attorneys statewide is about 22 years — roughly the national average. Forkner said the problem is when you look more regionally.

Younger attorneys aren’t replacing older attorneys as they retire, he said, particularly in rural Indiana.

“Attorney surrogate issues are a big one for us — when an attorney retires or has a medical issue, we can’t find other lawyers to replace them,” Forkner said. “It’s hard to find judges to get on the bench in some of these counties.”

Forkner said there is no single solution, no magic bullet. He said Indiana needs to approach the problem from a number of angles. That could be incentivizing attorneys to practice in rural areas and using a “scaled” licensure model.

“Scaling what you’re allowed to do under your license, based on the type of issue or type of complaint,” Forkner said. “When you think about the difference between nurses, registered nurses, your PAs that we had in the military versus all the way up to your surgeons. So, we’re looking at that — other states are doing that and testing that.”

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The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council said shortages are a particular problem in county prosecutors’ offices. IPAC Assistant Executive Director Courtney Curtis said pay disparity is a major issue.

“If you’re looking at a prosecutor or a [Department of Child Services] attorney, both of them work for government — but one of them makes $30,000 more. That’s a significant amount of money,” she said.

Curtis said in some counties, the minimum starting salary for a public defender is only $3,000 less than the average salary for deputy prosecutors in those same counties.

The study committee did not include any recommendations in its final report for the legislature to consider on the attorney shortage issue.

Brandon is our Statehouse bureau chief. Contact him at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.