VOICE OF THE PEOPLE, Chicago Tribune Letter to the Editor April 3, 2005
James R. Thompson (and) Philip J. Rock
Chicago-- Everyone, regardless of his or her income, deserves access to the justice system. This is one of the fundamental principles our nation prides itself on. Too often, though, this fundamental principle comes up short in Illinois for our poor residents who are most in need of the civil justice system to protect them.
Recently the Illinois State Bar Association, the Chicago Bar Association and the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois released "The Legal Aid Safety Net: A Report on the Legal Needs of Low-Income Illinoisans," which found that low-income households in Illinois had legal assistance for only one out of every six legal problems they encountered in 2003.
These same families attempted to resolve 80 percent of these legal problems on their own due to a variety of factors, including a lack of available legal-aid resources. Many of these problems were complex matters with potentially serious consequences, including evictions, domestic violence, child custody, bankruptcy and divorce.
Illinois faces a crisis when it comes to helping low-income families protect their legal rights. 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. Out of the 10 most populous states, Illinois ranks last, spending less than $500,000 annually for civil legal aid, versus the national average of $6.8 million. These figures are simply unacceptable.
As co-chairs of the Equal Justice Illinois Campaign, we are calling on the state to do its share to ensure that Illinois' poor have equal access to justice. By increasing state funding for legal aid to $2 million, the state could help well over 30,000 residents obtain the legal assistance they need that is often essential to their safety and independence.
Yes the state is in a budget crisis. But the low-income residents of our state are facing crises every day, such as domestic violence, predatory lending and child-support difficulties, without any sort of legal assistance.
Legal aid is a critical piece of the Illinois safety net, saving taxpayer money by reducing the need for costly government services and increasing the efficiency of our court system. It is a solid investment for the state and a necessity for our residents. We call on the governor and the General Assembly to protect the legal needs of Illinois residents and provide appropriate funding for legal aid.
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