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Spotlight on Pro Bono: Another Alternative For Free Legal Services In Southern Illinois

By Beverly A. Allen 

The Neighborhood Law Office, is just that — a law office that serves the legal needs of its neighbors. The Neighborhood Law Office (NLO) provides free legal services to low income residents in St. Clair County and its surrounding counties. Implemented in 1996, Kathleen O’Keefe, a former staff attorney at Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, Inc., was its first director. NLO falls under the auspices of Catholic Urban Programs (CUP). CUP was founded in 1973 as a department of the Catholic Diocese of Belleville and has provided charity services throughout Southern Illinois for over 40 years. The mission of CUP and NLO is to advance the dignity of the human person through compassionate responses to human needs, advocacy for justice, and to empower individuals and families to reach their full potential by ensuring access to justice for their clients. 

NLO initially began serving the community in the area of environmental law. Taking on cases involving demolition, removal of trash, industrial pollution, road repair, zoning issues, property tax issues, eminent domain which displaces homeowners and renters, O’Keefe fought to create healthy, safe and strong neighborhoods, which in turn help stabilize and revitalize a decaying city. As the office grew, it began to address the broader needs of the community. Currently, they handle cases in a wide variety of substantive areas of law, including, but not limited to, consumer law, elder law, employment law, environment law, expungements and sealing of criminal records, family law, housing law, Individual rights, juvenile law, public benefits, probate law, and other areas as resources are available. There are income guidelines, however, the focus is geared toward low- income residents. 

The current director of NLO, Nichele Moore, has a long history in poverty law. For the last five years, she has continued the legacy set by O’Keefe. Like O’Keefe, Moore served as a staff attorney at Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, Inc. in East St. Louis. During that time, she worked on public housing, consumer law, and employment cases. Moore is well respected in the legal community in St. Clair County as a formidable advocate for her clients. She is best known for the utility allowance case she handled while at Land of Lincoln. Moore graduated from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. She also earned a master's degree in government and international relations from the University of Notre Dame and a bachelor’s degree at Tuskegee University.

Upon joining NLO, Moore got busy organizing the office to increase efficiency and improve quality of service. During her tenure, NLO increased the number of cases the office handles each year by 200 percent. Through her dedication and hard work, NLO has been able to secure excellent outcomes for their clients. In one case, an NLO client received notice that she would be set out the next day. With only a few hours before the court closed, NLO sprang into action. Obtaining a copy of the court file, the attorney discovered that the client address was incorrect on the summons and return of service. NLO was able to negotiate a cancellation of the eviction with the plaintiff. The tenant remains in public housing today. In another case, a NLO client was being illegally evicted by her landlord after she lost her job and became two weeks late on rent. The landlord brought the police to her unit and stated that they would be back the next day. NLO worked with the police department to reaffirm the client’s right to possession absent a court order. The landlord was arrested multiple times for trespassing. The client eventually moved out due to the landlord’s harassing actions. However, she was able to secure her possessions and hopefully, the landlord learned that he could not utilize his contacts in the police department to effectuate illegal evictions. In another case, NLO assisted an elderly, disabled woman with removing her court appointed guardian. Suffering from dementia, the entire story is not clear. The NLO client was living at a boarding house for disabled adults. Sometime after she moved in, the owner became the client’s guardian and took over her SSI payments, food stamps, and medical care. The client was not allowed to speak with family. She was not fed properly and lost 80 pounds in one year. When she advised her doctor of the treatment, he allowed her to go to her aunts after her appointment with him. Her guardian retrieved her with the help of the police. She was locked in a room without food until she recanted her statement. Working with a private attorney, NLO was able to get her daughter appointed as guardian. They reported the boarding house to a number of agencies who had been aware of the situation. NLO also pushed multiple parties to take responsibility for the situation as it pertained to approximately 20 other disabled individuals. The state unsuccessfully filed a TRO against the illegal nursing home. NLO filed suit against the owner and that case is still pending. In the meantime, the client is happily living with her daughter and putting on weight. It is stories like these that lets us know how much NLO is needed in the community.

NLO also works hand in hand with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, Inc. and other community providers. NLO takes cases that Land of Lincoln cannot handle due to limited resources or funding restrictions; and refers cases to Land of Lincoln that fit within their program’s priorities. Under the guidance of the Honorable Judge Zena Cruse, Moore has served as chair for the first and second Annual St. Clair County Expungement and Sealing summits. Land of Lincoln also co-sponsors the Annual St. Clair County Expungement and Sealing Summit with NLO. Through the Summit, they have educated over 1,000 people on expungements. NLO partnership with Land of Lincoln increases the opportunity for the community to attain access to free legal services, whereas in many communities, legal aid programs similar to Land of Lincoln are the only resource available. Legal aid programs funded by the federal government have limited resources, would never have the capacity to serve all who seek legal assistance and welcome the partnership with NLO. 

Posted on April 11, 2018 by Sara Anderson
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