Spotlight on Pro Bono: A Virtual Pro Bono Opportunity to Help Those in Need
Michael G. Bergmann, Executive Director of the Public Interest Law Initiative
Illinois Free Legal Answers is a virtual legal clinic where low-income Illinoisans can submit a question online to ask a pro bono lawyer for help with a civil legal issue. Volunteer lawyers then log onto the site at their convenience and answer questions waiting in the queue that they feel comfortable addressing. All of the interactions are through a website, so all that is needed is internet access and a device to be able to start helping people. Especially, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a great way to help those in need from the comfort and safety of your own home or office.
A project of the American Bar Association, Free Legal Answers was created as a national platform to increase access to advice and information about non-criminal legal matters for those who cannot afford legal assistance. It is now active in 42 jurisdictions within the United States, including Illinois, with the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) as the statewide administrator. Since it was launched, the Illinois Bar Foundation has been the primary funder of Illinois Free Legal Answers. PILI provides the necessary support, including an online resource page with training videos and sample questions and answers. The ABA provides malpractice coverage for volunteer lawyers.
Adults who have met financial eligibility guidelines, are not currently incarcerated, and are not requesting assistance with criminal law matters are able to ask questions through the website. Before users are allowed to request legal advice, they will be asked questions to establish eligibility. Most clients’ questions tend to be in one of the big three civil legal aid categories—family, housing, and consumer law. However, since the pandemic and resulting shutdown, people now are also asking about employment and benefits issues.
Any lawyer who is registered as active and authorized to practice with the ARDC, including those with house counsel status, can volunteer. Additionally, those with inactive or retired status and out-of-state licensed attorneys can volunteer under Supreme Court Rule 756 by filling a form through PILI each year with the ARDC. Typically there are anywhere from 75-125 questions in the queue at any given time waiting to be answered. From August 2019 to August 2020 alone, 1,954 legal questions have been answered through the site.
Starting September 1, 2020, self-represented litigants in Illinois can also submit a question online about their civil appeal and receive an answer from a pro bono lawyer with the launch of Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals, the first-ever legal help desk for appeals in Illinois. The program was created to address the pressing need to provide help to self-represented litigants (SRLs), who account for 41% of civil appeals filed in the state.
Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals will operate through the Illinois Free Legal Answers platform. This initiative is a unique partnership between PILI, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice (ATJ Commission), the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC), and an Illinois Appellate Legal Answers Advisory Committee, which is comprised of a variety of legal stakeholders throughout the state. Low-income litigants with a civil appeal can submit their questions to a lawyer through the website and the platform is open to both appellants and appellees.
Illinois Free Legal Answers is a convenient way for attorneys to volunteer their skills in a way that best fits their schedule while assisting those who have nowhere else to turn. You can learn more about Illinois Free Legal Answers at www.pili.org/pro-bono/legal-answers or visit the site to register at http://il.freelegalanswers.org/.