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Monday, December 15, 2014

In Illinois' poor, disadvantaged struggle to find Legal help! Justice for all?

The Southern Illinoisan |   

Michael A. Fiello manages a Carbondale legal aid office of eight attorneys, including him, for 23 Southern Illinois counties.
They handle about 1,600 cases a year on behalf of the poor – mostly for free – but do get help from other pro bono attorneys who work outside Fiello's not-for-profit Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation Inc.
Some outside attorneys do get compensated through a Foundation program, but at a reduced rate, and many others take on their own pro bono cases.
For most people, Foundation services are free, eligible if their household income is at or below 125 percent of federal poverty level guidelines, Fiello said. Cases are limited to specific types, dictated by federal funding, so cases such as personal injury lawsuits are not covered.
Custody, public benefits, bankruptcy, consumer and housing are some areas Foundation lawyers do handle.
Yet, even with those resources, many more people are not getting the help they need to address their grievances. Recent research on legal aid in Illinois shows fewer than 20 percent of those who need help are getting it because of inadequate funding and limited time, Fiello said. Many times his office has to say “no” to cases.
“It would be fair to say that even if you take into account all of those things, the demand far outstrips what we have to offer,” said Fiello, a 30-year Foundation veteran. “It’s not just Illinois. I think it would be fair to say that in every state and territory in the United States, legal services programs are stretched thin.”
However, when it comes to access to the court system for the poor, the disabled and other disadvantaged people, Illinois does not fare well compared to other states, according to a national ranking released this year.
The state placed 49th in the country in the Justice Index, compiled by the National Center for Access to Justice at the Cardozo Law School in New York City. Trailing the state were Kentucky then Oklahoma. Washington, D.C., received the top score while Connecticut placed second.
The index, released in February but tweaked in November after feedback, is based on how states serve people with disabilities and limited English proficiency, how much free legal help is available and how states help increasing numbers of people representing themselves in court, among other issues, said David Udell, the center’s executive director.
The intent behind the index, he noted, is not to be critical of states like Illinois but to advance discussions for improving access.
As with many rankings, the index has its critics, but Udell said the center is working to expand areas of access researched which could change future outcomes. One area would be to include the availability of pro bono attorneys in each state.
“There are tens of millions of people in the state courts who proceed each year without ever consulting with an attorney in a system that is designed to have attorneys on both sides,” Udell said.
“It’s an aspect of our system that is rarely taught adequately in law schools and it presents enormous challenges to a nation that wants it justice system to be fair and adequate. The matters are often high stakes,” he added.
He acknowledged advocates, legislators, justices and attorneys are working to improve access, including in Illinois.
Bob Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, an equal access advocacy group that also works on statewide issues, said his group is researching the methodology behind the index but noted he questions whether it portrays an accurate picture when it comes to Illinois access.
The state has taken numerous steps to improve access, steps he does not believe were accounted for, including new state court policies addressing language barriers established through the Illinois Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission, created in 2012.
“I will say I don’t think any of us who work on these issues in Illinois think we are 49th. I think we all feel like it’s a constant work in progress and there’s work to be done yet but we are doing better than that based on actual experience,” Glaves said.
Glaves and Fiello, an Access Commission member since its start, each said one shortcoming is funding for aid services both in Illinois and across the country.
Fiello could not immediately say how much it costs to run his office, accounting work that is done by Land of Lincoln headquarters.
Funding comes from a variety of sources -- less than 50 percent from the federal government -- but it is far from enough. It’s a problem across the country in the legal aid arena, he said.
“None of them receive the necessary funding to provide assistance to all the people who are financially eligible for assistance, let alone all people who cannot afford a lawyer,” Fiello said.
Currently, the Access Commission is not addressing state funding, he said. Given the budget crisis in Illinois, he does not foresee any such talks happening soon.
Asked why he has stayed with the Foundation for three decades, Fiello said his goal ever since entering law school at the University of Illinois has been to help those who could not afford a lawyer.
Access equity, he added, should be a concern to all Americans.
“If you look at the Pledge of Allegiance, it says, ‘with liberty and justice for all.’ We have a justice system and that is the court system. If you have people who do not have access to the court system, then they do not have access to justice, a fundamental tenant of our country,” he said.

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