Equal Justice is a basic right that is fundamental to democracy in this State, and the integrity of this State and this State’s justice system depends on protecting and enforcing the rights of all people.
— Illinois Equal Justice Act, 30 ILCS 765/5(a).
Ensuring every citizen has equal access to justice should be a core American value. But the reality remains that civil justice problems persist. Some surveys suggest that over 80 percent of people don’t have access to assistance for their legal problems. Some lawmakers suggest significant changes to our legal system to address this problem. However, many Illinois legal foundations and legal aid organizations are involved in reform efforts, aiding financially (providing in-kind services) and giving a voice to the voiceless.
Though most legal aid problems never reach the formal justice system, courts are often overwhelmed by the number of civil litigants. The call to action and demand for assistance remains constant. Local, state and federal governments, generous individuals and private foundations contribute more than $1 billion each year to fund civil legal assistance for low- and moderate-income people. The impact is great, but the challenges endure.
Many Illinois legal foundations and legal aid organizations tackle common barriers to providing access to efficient and effective legal services. Here’s a condensed review of some Illinois organizations improving the legal system and equal access to justice.
For over 50 years, the Illinois Bar Foundation (IBF) has served as the charitable arm of the Illinois State Bar Association. The IBF ensures meaningful access to the justice system, especially for those with limited means, and assists lawyers who can no longer support themselves due to incapacity. The IBF encourages pro bono legal work and education for residents regarding their rights and responsibilities under the law.
One example is the Illinois JusticeCorps. This AmeriCorps program helps guide Self-Represented Litigants (SRLs) across Illinois. The JusticeCorps program recruits, trains and supports college and law students. It offers procedural and navigational assistance to improve access to justice and our legal system in Cook, Lake, Winnebago, Will, Kankakee, Knox, McLean, Champaign and Madison Counties.
More info: Illinois Bar Foundation Impact Report
Brief overview of IBF’s efforts across Illinois.
Over the past 70+ years, the Chicago Bar Foundation (CBF) has been bringing Chicago’s legal community together. The CBF aims to improve access to justice for people in need and make the legal system fairer and more efficient.
The CBF is particularly known for its creative, entrepreneurial approach to developing solutions to emerging access to justice issues. For example, helping to develop and advocate for legislation that created the Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network (IL-FLAN) and the Justice Entrepreneurs Project (JEP). IL-FLAN is a new legal hotline and coordinated network of services for veterans and military families. It’s the first of its kind in the country. JEP is an internationally recognized incubator for lawyers to start innovative, socially conscious law practices in the Chicago area that provide affordable services to low- and moderate-income people. These are just two of the innovative programs supported by CBF.
CBF 70th Anniversary Review
The Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) cultivates a lifelong commitment to public interest law and pro bono service within the Illinois legal community. It expands the availability of legal services for people, families and communities in need.
PILI builds programs for law students, lawyers and legal professionals to engage in public interest law or pro bono work to address the legal needs of the poor and underrepresented. Among its initiatives are the Law Student Internship and Graduate Fellowship programs. These programs place law students and recent law school graduates at public interest law organizations. PILI then provides supplemental educational, networking and mentoring opportunities.
PILI’s reach is growing through its Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committees (I’m the chair of the 6th Judicial Circuit Committee). Members of the judiciary join pro bono leaders from local law firms, corporations, bar associations and public interest law organizations to increase equal access to justice. The Committees promote and enhance pro bono legal services within judicial circuits across Illinois.
The Public Interest Law Initiative: Celebrating 40 Years of Service
In 2016, women outnumbered men in law school classrooms for the first time. The trend has continued. In 2017, women law students enrolled at a higher rate than their male counterparts (51 percent to 49 percent). However, a retention problem continues. While the percentage of women or minority partners has increased each year, law firm partnership ranks remain overwhelmingly white and male.
For 50 years, the Illinois Women’s Bar Foundation has supported women pursuing law with over $1.1 million in scholarships. The funds for Foundation scholarships are raised through individual donations, endowments, bequests and Foundation events.
The Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois (LTF) is the largest state-level funder of civil legal aid in Illinois. Established as a non-profit foundation in 1983, LTF makes grants from revenue generated by the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program as well as a legal aid fee assessed on Illinois lawyers as part of the annual attorney registration process.
LTF’s grants support legal aid organizations as building blocks for delivering justice, regardless of income and resources. LTF recently announced that it will distribute Legal Services Support Grants totaling $9,111,000 for FY 2019. This is an increase of $785,000 over FY 2018. Top recipients include Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, Prairie State Legal Services, Illinois Legal Aid Online, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services and CARPLS Legal Aid.
With the Illinois Equal Justice Act of 1999, Illinois committed to protecting citizens by guaranteeing access to the legal system. The Act recognized the state’s responsibility to provide financial support for legal aid services through the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation (IEJF).
The Illinois Office of the Attorney General funds IEJF through an appropriation. The appropriation addresses the needs of families in crisis, victims of domestic violence and seniors facing abuse and financial exploitation. IEJF’s programs provide guidance and representation to help clients understand the legal system and their rights within it.
For more than 50 years, LAF has provided free legal services in non-criminal matters to people living in poverty in metropolitan Chicago. LAF aims to resolve critical legal problems that systemically trap people in poverty, such as domestic violence, consumer fraud and unfair evictions. In doing so, LAF has given hundreds of thousands of individuals hope for a brighter future.
In 2007, the Illinois Judges Association established the Illinois Judges Foundation to be its charitable arm. It’s composed of current sitting judges and retired judges from the state-court level throughout Illinois. The Foundation funds educational, civic and scholarship projects that advance the rule of law and the administration of justice, and encourages judicial participation in these endeavors.
Illinois legal foundations and legal aid organizations are leading in providing access to efficient and effective legal services. What are other legal organizations doing to improve access to justice?