Indiana State University Newsroom

Indiana State students work to improve the court system

August 13, 2014

A summer research project offered five Indiana State students the opportunity to walk a mile in someone else's shoes.

The students -- Matt Guell, Brooklyn Hollis, Alethia Marrero, Kirk Moore and Abbey Rogers -- considered what it's like to go to civil court when you don't speak English, or when you don't understand the difference between plaintiff and defendant or if you can't afford an attorney.

These scenarios are real experiences for many Vigo County residents, and Sycamores set out to research ways to increase access to civil justice for low-income litigants. For more than two months, the students reviewed legal reports and studies, pored over current laws and legal action, observed real civil court proceedings and interviewed Vigo County judges.

What the students found are few legal resources for the poor, a significant need and limited research data.

"There was a point where I realized that our research group was basically taking on the role of a grassroots movement," said Marrero of Indianapolis. "We spent a lot of our time researching the outcomes of grassroots-type groups in other states, and when I realized that we were following in their footsteps for our own community, it was very rewarding."

The research fit perfectly into some students' academic majors. For instance, Moore, who is from a small town in Ghana, is a senior majoring in legal studies with a minor in criminology. But the experience was a whole new world for Rogers, who is finishing up her political science major this year and hopes to continue her studies in public policy analysis.

"The legal system has good intentions when trying to fund services that provide low-income litigants assistance," said Rogers of Salem. "However, I think that these services would be much better publicized and accessible if they were focused at the local-level. Places with higher poverty rates, like Terre Haute, could anticipate high benefits in the community if there was more accessible assistance."

Each student tackled a specific area (or barrier), and then all of their findings were amassed. "When we started piecing together one encompassing presentation, despite the fact that we had all separately researched our own topic on this subject, we realized all of our work had important connections that we would be able to offer to our audience," Rogers said. "Being able to make these connections was a great learning experience."

The students also prepared different presentations for diverse audiences, ranging from the local legal community to women living in an emergency shelter.

"Some of (the Bethany House residents) already had their minds made up about the legal system, and there was nothing we could say to change their mind," said Hollis, a junior from Crawfordsville. "That experience taught me that it really does matter how you present to your audience. The audience's perception of the information they're being given can be the make or break point of any presentation, and we really focused on that for the final presentation, which is why I think it went so well."

The students' research has attracted the local legal community's attention, and they have been invited to present their findings at a meeting of the Indiana Pro Bono Commission in September.

"When presenting to the legal audience, we advocated for more educational programs for low-income citizens," said Marrero, a sophomore majoring in political science and legal studies. "We didn't realize at the time that our experience with the Bethany House residents -- showing them how to navigate the legal process -- was actually a smaller version of the educational programs we were pushing for."

Added Hollis, a legal studies major: "I feel like the American legal system does what it can with its current situation. I believe that for the civil part of the system, there is room for change to be made. The system tries to be fair to all parties, but having some sort of program for litigants (going to civil court) who cannot afford an attorney (and maybe have never been before a judge) can really streamline the process."

Among the students' other suggestions:

-- Implement more limited-scope legal services programs, such as "Lawyer for the Day," self-help clinics and hotlines, which show promise in assisting low-income litigants in Indiana

-- Require mandatory reporting of attorneys' pro bono work, a proposal currently under consideration by the Indiana Supreme Court

-- Increase language assistance for non-English-speaking litigants

-- Determine a way to measure the effectiveness of legal assistance, focusing on procedural justice and the litigant's satisfaction with the process

More research -- particularly in the areas of civil court outcomes and reducing default judgments -- is needed, the students said.

"I found that there was not a lot of data on my particular topic. This was a good thing, because it gave me ideas for studies in the future," said Guell, who is a junior in political science and legal studies.

"However, it was harder for me to locate the difficulties that low-income litigants were facing at present."

In addition to gaining knowledge of the legal system, the Sycamores learned how to tap each other's strengths.

"The most surprising part of this program was the relationships I was able to build with my peers. I had been in the same classes or had the same major as these four students but had never really interacted with them," Rogers said. "The issues and problems throughout our 10-week project were able to be resolved as a unit (and) created new friendships and new bonds."

Lead by political science instructor Katie Butwin, the research project was sponsored by the Center for Student Research and Creativity and the Center for Community Engagement at Indiana State and Catholic Charities of Terre Haute.


Photos: -- From left, Indiana State University students Matt Guell, Alethia Marrero, Brooklyn Hollis, Abbey Rogers and Kirk Moore pose for a photograph. – Indiana State University students Kirk Moore, Matt Guell, Abbey Rogers and Alethia Marrero practice their presentation for Bethany House residents. – Indiana State University students Abbey Rogers, Kirk Moore, Alethia Marrero and Brooklyn Hollis practice their presentation for Bethany House residents.


Contact: Katie Butwin, political science instructor at Indiana State University, 812-237-3766 or

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or