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New Referral Program Seeks to Close Gap in Services for Low-Income Individuals

In much of Illinois outside of Cook County, there is only one legal service agency serving low-income people with civil (non-criminal) legal needs. Due to ethics rules, these organizations sometimes have to turn a potential client away due to a conflict of interest. Hundreds of potential clients are denied services in Illinois every year for this reason.

There are a number of scenarios in which a conflict of interest may arise that would prevent the local legal aid office from providing assistance. One example would be where that office is already providing representation to another party in the same legal matter.

“For low-income Illinoisans outside of Chicago, the legal aid resources available to them are already limited,” explains Michael Bergmann, Executive Director of the Public Interest Law Initiative. “In most instances, when the local legal aid office cannot assist someone due to a conflict of interest, there is nowhere else to turn.”

Through its local Tenth Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee, PILI is trying to change this reality by increasing access to legal assistance to those in need. PILI is partnering with the Prairie State Legal Services office in Peoria to pilot an innovative volunteer referral program in Marshall, Peoria, Stark, and Tazewell counties.

Effective Feb. 1, when Prairie State cannot provide assistance to someone due to a conflict, that person can now be referred to PILI. A member of the PILI staff will then conduct an intake interview to confirm that the client is eligible for the program, and will try to find a local volunteer attorney to provide legal services on a pro bono basis.

PILI does not accept clients that are not Prairie State referrals. If someone tries to contact PILI directly for legal assistance, they will be referred back to the local legal aid agency.

“We are hoping to gauge the need for services as well as pro bono attorney interest through this pilot phase, with the hopes of expanding this program to other parts of the state as well,” explained Bergmann.

Posted on February 14, 2018 by Sara Anderson