December 2001Volume 7Number 2

The Illinois Equal Justice Foundation: promoting access to justice for the people of Illinois

We know that women with children bear the brunt of poverty's effects. We know that too many women face desperate economic and family problems and have no idea where to turn. We also know that in many cases, the law can be a powerful tool on their behalf, offering women protection from physical, emotional and economic abuse.

For the first time in history, the State of Illinois has committed general revenue funds to support legal aid programs and other not-for-profit initiatives that make our legal system accessible to Illinois residents with modest incomes. Many of these initiatives, which tackle issues such as domestic violence and consumer protection of the elderly, make critical differences in the lives of lower-income Illinois women every day.

The conduit for this state funding is the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, a twelve-member body appointed by the Illinois State and Chicago Bar Associations. Created pursuant to the Illinois Equal Justice Act, 30 ILCS 765/1 et. seq., the Foundation is both a model of cooperation between the two bar associations and a model of public/private collaboration.

The Act, which was passed with overwhelming legislative support in 1999, affirmed that "[e]qual justice is a basic right that is fundamental to democracy in this state, and the integrity of . . . this state's justice system depends on protecting and enforcing the rights of all people." Governor George Ryan echoed these sentiments in his annual budget message to the General Assembly and included $500,000 in funding for the Foundation in his FY 2001 budget for the Illinois Department of Human Services.

The Foundation's goals

Chaired by Michael A. Pope of McDermott Will & Emery in Chicago, the Foundation is a not-for-profit organization designed to increase access to legal information and assistance in Illinois by distributing funds to other worthy not-for-profit organizations throughout the state. The Foundation's grant-making goals are guided by the forward-thinking purposes set forth in the Illinois Equal Justice Act. These purposes envision a continuum of strategies to help people use the legal system appropriately, with an emphasis on solving problems in an expeditious and cost-effective manner. The specific strategies include:

* Legal information and self-help materials in courthouses, libraries, or on the Internet.

* Mediation services to help parties resolve disputes without litigation.

* Telephone "hotline" services for information, referral, and basic legal advice.

* Courthouse-based "help desks" to assist parties with specific legal problems; and

* Legal assistance to advise and represent low-income persons in cases that require the services of an attorney.

Working closely with the two bar associations, the directors of the Foundation approved their first grants in January 2001, distributing a total of $476,660 to not-for-profit legal aid programs, mediation centers and telephone hotlines throughout the state. (A complete list of grants appears below.)

The Foundation is extremely important for several reasons. First, it represents an acknowledgment by the State of Illinois that legal services to the poor, like other social services, are a societal responsibility. While lawyers can--and do--provide tremendous support for legal aid through donations and pro bono service, they cannot meet the needs alone.

This infusion of state resources is also critical at a time when overall resources for legal aid in Illinois have been stagnant, at best. Federal funding from the Legal Services Corporation was cut by 25 percent in 1996. The Lawyers Trust Fund's revenue from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program has been stalled due to lower interest rates. Donations from lawyers and foundations have helped fill the gap, but an uncertain economy and a declining stock market do not offer bright prospects for the years ahead. Even a small investment by state standards offers a critical boost to the legal aid system.

The Foundation is also important for its future promise. Governor Ryan has included another $500,000 in the Department of Human Services budget for FY 2002, and the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation expects to announce its second round of grants in January 2002. In the years ahead, with the support of Illinois' lawyers, judges and others who are committed to the ideal of equal justice, this amount can be continued and increased.

The directors of the Foundation include its chairman, Pope, former ISBA president Timothy L. Bertschy of Peoria; former DuPage County Bar Association president Christine Ory of Wheaton; Chicagoan James Gidwitz, CEO of Continental Materials Corporation; R. Rennie Atterbury III, General Counsel of Peoria-based Caterpillar, Inc.; Roger H. Bickel of Freeborn & Peters in Chicago; Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey; former Chicago Bar Association president Don Hubert; Jeffrey W. Jackson of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Group in Bloomington; Michael Lawrence of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University; former Illinois Senate President Philip J. Rock; and Mary Jacobs Skinner of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood.

Illinois Equal Justice Foundation FY 2001 grant recipients

Recipients of Equal Justice grants, along with the purpose of the grants, are listed below. As noted, some recipients received multiple grants.

* Alternative Dispute Resolution Clinic/Southern Illinois University School of Law (Carbondale)--To help low-income families and children to resolve custody and visitation issues by providing mediation services in thirteen counties in southern Illinois ($10,000).

* Center for Conflict Resolution (Chicago)--To assist thousands of people throughout Cook County in resolving a wide array of disputes through mediation ($35,000).

* Chicago Volunteer Legal Services (Chicago)--To protect hundreds of children and young adults by serving as Guardian Ad Litem in Cook County guardianship cases ($25,000).

* Coordinated Advice & Referral Program for Legal Services (Chicago)--To help thousands of low-income and disadvantaged people in Cook County by providing general information on how to use the legal system, free legal advice and self-help materials, and referrals when necessary through a telephone hotline ($47,000).

* DuPage Legal Assistance Foundation (Wheaton)--To assist homeless people and victims of domestic violence by providing efficient and cost effective legal services in DuPage County ($20,000).

* Illinois Technology Center for Law & the Public Interest (Chicago)--To help people throughout the state of Illinois to understand their legal rights and responsibilities by providing basic legal information to the public through a statewide, Internet-based service ($20,000).

* Kankakee Center for Conflict Resolution/Victims Assistance Center (Kankakee)--To assist people throughout Kankakee County by providing mediation services on a broad range of issues ($10,000).

* Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation (Alton and Springfield)--To serve thousands of low-income people in sixty-five counties in southern and central Illinois by providing general information on how to use the legal system, free legal advice and self-help materials, and referrals when necessary through a telephone hotline ($47,000); to help elderly people in eight counties in and around Springfield by providing legal assistance for elder abuse and neglect, guardianship, health and long-term care, and consumer issues through senior centers, nursing homes and home visits ($15,674); and to assist low-income people with landlord/tenant issues by providing information and assistance in the Sangamon County courthouse ($8,391).

* Legal Aid Bureau of Metropolitan Family Services (Chicago)--To help low-income parents and children throughout Cook County to collect unpaid child support ($19,095).

* Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (Chicago)--To protect elderly people throughout Cook County against consumer fraud by providing information and assistance ($40,000) and to help victims of domestic violence in twenty-two western suburbs of Cook County by providing information, advice and assistance ($40,000).

* Prairie State Legal Services (Bloomington, Rock Island, Carol Stream & Waukegan)--To serve thousands of low-income people in twenty-nine counties in northern and central Illinois by providing general information on how to use the legal system, free legal advice and self-help materials, and referrals when necessary through a telephone hotline ($47,000); to serve senior citizens and victims of domestic violence in McLean, Livingston and Woodford counties by offering information, advice and assistance ($40,000); and to assist victims of domestic violence in the Illinois half of the Quad Cities and in Henry, Mercer, Rock Island and Whiteside counties ($25,000) .

* Self Help Legal Center/Southern Illinois University School of Law (Carbondale)--To serve people in sixteen counties in rural southern Illinois by providing access to legal information by mail, Internet, and in-person, including placing two Internet terminals at libraries and Circuit Clerk's offices for direct access to the Center's services ($10,500).

* Uptown Peoples Law Center (Chicago)--To assist people throughout the state of Illinois by distributing newsletters addressing legal issues of concern to families ($5,000).

* Will County Legal Assistance Program--(Joliet) To support victims of domestic violence in Will County by providing legal information publications, educational programs and community outreach ($12,000).

Login to post comments