What is legal aid?

Legal aid programs provide legal services to people who need civil legal assistance (such as in a divorce or landlord-tenant situation), but cannot afford to pay for the services of an attorney. Legal aid programs do not provide assistance in criminal cases.

In a non-criminal (civil) case, a person does not have the right to a free lawyer. However, in Illinois, there are several legal aid and pro bono programs that can provide low-income people in civil cases with legal help at no charge. Individuals or families with annual incomes below the federal poverty guidelines are generally eligible to receive free legal assistance. In addition, people who are elderly, disabled, the victims of domestic violence, enlisted in the military, or who are in other special circumstances, may be eligible for help, regardless of their income.

Legal aid offices employ staff lawyers to provide help to low-income clients. The lawyers are usually experienced in the types of problems that poor clients often encounter, such as housing and foreclosure, employment and income maintenance, family law, and consumer issues.

In 1974, Congress created the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to provide federal funding for civil legal aid programs. LSC’s funding has fluctuated dramatically over the past three decades, but it continues to be the largest source of funding for legal aid programs. State-based “Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts” (IOLTA) are another significant means in which legal aid is funded. In Illinois, the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois is the largest state-based funder of civil legal aid to the poor. Federal, state and local governmental agencies also help to fund civil legal aid as a way to advance the purpose of government-supported social services such as the Department of Justice Violence Against Women Act funding. In addition, state bar foundations, foundations and charitable organizations, businesses, and individual donors offer critical support to civil legal aid. In Illinois, legal aid programs provide vital assistance to low-income clients; however, the need for representation is always far greater than the funds and staff available to assist people in need.

Federally-funded legal aid organizations in Illinois that provide free legal services to the poor are:

• Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation www.lollaf.org 618.462.0029; 800.642.5570, serving the Southern half of Illinois

• Prairie State Legal Services www.pslegal.org 815.965.2134, serving the Northern half of the state except Cook County

• Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago www.lafchicago.org 312.341.1070, serving Cook County

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February 2017Volume 3Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)