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February 8, 2005 312-499-4753
(CHICAGO)......Low-income Illinoisans are only able to get legal help for one out of every six legal problems they face, according to a major new study of the legal aid system released today. Leaders from the legal community gathered at the offices of the Coordinated Advice & Referral Program for Legal Services (CARPLS), Cook County’s legal aid hotline, to unveil The Legal Aid Safety Net: A Report on the Legal Needs of Low-Income Illinoisans. The report finds that the legal aid system is so overburdened and under-funded that it is operating in a crisis mode, accepting only the most critical cases and turning away tens of thousands of people each year.
Through a statewide telephone survey of 1,645 low-income households, the study found that in 2003 alone, poor people faced more than 1.3 million civil legal problems, involving issues such as domestic violence, divorce, child custody, evictions, mortgage foreclosures or the physical and financial abuse of the elderly. However, in more than 80% of those cases, individuals and families faced the problem without legal assistance.
The study was sponsored by The Chicago Bar Association, the Illinois State Bar Association, the Chicago Bar Foundation, the Illinois Bar Foundation and the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois. It is the first study of its kind in more than 15 years.
"The study clearly shows that people who cannot afford to pay market rates for legal help are often forced to try to resolve serious problems without the knowledge or the assistance they need to obtain a fair resolution," said Timothy L. Bertschy, co-chair of the study’s steering committee and a partner at the firm of Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen in Peoria. "Lawyers aren’t necessary to solve every problem, and we don’t want to encourage unnecessary litigation. But people are being forced to handle some very complex matters on their own, simply because there are no legal aid resources available."
For example, the study found that 69% of domestic violence victims did not have legal assistance. Parents faced child custody disputes without representation in 63% of cases. Three quarters of those facing mortgage foreclosures did not have an attorney.
"What many people may not realize is that in civil cases, unlike criminal ones, people don’t automatically have the right to counsel," said Jennifer T. Nijman, a co-chair of the study and a partner at Winston & Strawn. "This is true even though the potential consequences of some civil problems, like the loss of custody of a child or the loss of a home due to foreclosure, are extremely serious. That’s why the legal aid safety net has to be strengthened."
The study found that those who sought legal help encountered a legal aid system overwhelmed by demand for its services. Legal aid "hotlines," which serve as the first point of contact for legal aid programs in many parts of the state, report that they are able to respond to less than a third of the calls they receive. There are only the equivalent of 280 full-time legal aid lawyers in the entire state – a ratio of one legal aid lawyer for every 4,752 legal problems faced by the poor. As a result of these staff shortages, legal aid programs have adopted "triage" systems designed to screen out all but the most critical legal emergencies.
"The legal aid system is stretched too thin everywhere, but outside of Cook County there are only 84 legal aid lawyers to serve 101 counties," said Ole Bly Pace III, president of the Illinois State Bar Association. "The nearest legal aid office to my home town, Sterling, is in Rock Island, more than sixty miles away. In some parts of the state the nearest office is two or three counties away. That makes it especially tough for older people and others who have a hard time traveling."
The legal aid system is overburdened because it is severely under-funded. The study determined that it would cost an additional $49 million to provide assistance to the 140,000 people who sought, but could not get, legal help in 2003.
Federal funding from the Legal Services Corporation, which is the largest source of support for legal aid, has dropped by 38% over the past fifteen years, when adjusted for inflation. The state of Illinois provides less than 2% of total funding for legal aid, and of the ten most populous states, Illinois ranks last, spending just $472,000 compared to an average of $6.8 million.
"We have in this state more than 11 million people, and we have a 55 billion dollar annual budget, and the amount of money that is made available for legal services simply is disgraceful," said Phil Rock, former Illinois Senate President and co-chair of the Equal Justice Illinois Campaign. "You’re trying to paint the house with a quart of paint. It’s not working."
The report’s other key findings include:
• Just under half (49%) of the approximately 782,000 low-income households in Illinois experienced one or more legal problems in 2003.
• Those households that did have at least one legal problem faced an average of 3.5 distinct problems.
• African-American households were 21% more likely to have a legal problem than the survey average, and Latino households were 5% more likely to have a problem. White households were 13% less likely than average to have encountered a legal problem.
• Households that include a person with a disability were 50% more likely to have experienced a legal problem.
"We need to ensure that low-income people have a level playing field and can obtain the legal help that they need when it comes to securing their legal rights," said Joy Cunningham, president of The Chicago Bar Association.
In addition to pointing out the need for additional funding, the study offers recommendations on ways to make the courts more accessible to people who do not have legal representation, to encourage more attorneys in private practice to offer voluntary pro bono services, and to further increase the efficiency of the legal aid system.
The telephone survey was conducted by the Metro Chicago Information Center, a not-for-profit research organization. The telephone survey findings have a confidence interval of +/- 2.5%. The definition of "low-income" used by study was 150% of federal poverty guidelines or 27,600 for a four-person household.
Financial support for the study was provided by the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, the Polk Bros. Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, The Chicago Community Trust, The Chicago Bar Foundation, the Illinois Bar Foundation, Caterpillar, Inc. and the Francis Beidler Foundation.
For a copy of the full report, go to www.ltf.org/legalneeds.htm.
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