Legal Aid Safety Net Stretched Thin

October 01, 2009 | Progress Illinois |  Link to article

Fighting your way through the legal system is difficult enough for those with social and economic capital. For the poor, it can be an impossible and demoralizing task.

Yesterday, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) -- a publicly-funded entity that supports more than 900 legal aid offices across the country -- released a new report on what they call the American "justice gap." The results are disheartening. Legal aid clinics turn down an estimated half of their potential indigent clients (about one million people in total) because of insufficient resources. This piggy-backs off research published in July by the Center for Law and Social Policy, which estimated (PDF) that less than 20 percent of the legal needs of low-income Americans are being met.

The LSC report formulated their estimates via research conducted in seven states -- not including Illinois.  However, the paper updates data the organization collected (PDF) in 2005, during which Illinois was surveyed.

Like others around the country, our state's legal aid safety net has huge holes.  While the average low-income household (at or below 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Level) faced 1.7 legal needs per year, only 16.4 percent of those needs were met. Part of the problem is outreach: Only 23 percent of eligible Illinoisans knew free legal aid existed. The other problem is one of resources. In 2003, the equivalent of 280 full-time legal aid lawyers serviced the entire state (PDF) -- a ratio of one legal aid lawyer for every 4,752 legal problems faced by the low-income Illinoisans.

The recession has further battered the patchwork of law agencies and non-profits taking on these duties, which were underfunded to begin with. While Illinois' share of federal funding from LSC jumped (PDF) from $11.5 million to $12.7 million between 2008 and 2009, funding administered through the state-based Lawyers Trust Accounts plummeted from a record high of $12.5 million in FY 2009 to $8.5 million this year. The ongoing budget crisis in Springfield has left local advocates uncertain about what the future holds. "It's chaos," says Diana White of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, which lost one $900,000 grant this year to sign up people for social security disability benefits. "We have no idea what's going on." Legal aid agencies are also concerned that private law firm donations will decline in light of the economic downturn.

At the same time, demand is skyrocketing. Nationally, LSC reports that the number of people who qualify for assistance has grown by about 11 million in just two years. Back in Chicago, White says that the phone line at her organization's office at 35th and State Street is totally jammed by 10:30 am every morning."People call," she says, "and they just get the busy signal all day."

In the meantime, aid providers are trying to get the most out of the scraps thrown their way -- obtaining settlements when appropriate, working with community-based groups to target their outreach, and putting in endless hours. But until state and federal lawmakers build comprehensive civil legal assistance systems, the problems of indigent defense won't be solved.

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