Public Interest Law Initiative

Guest Post: The State’s Responsibility to Equal Justice

Posted on: May 21, 2020

This is a guest post from Leslie Corbett, Executive Director of Illinois Equal Justice Foundation (IEJF). IEJF distributes funding appropriated by the State to support not-for-profit legal aid programs. PILI receives funding from IEJF to support our Pro Bono Program.

 

Keeping people in their homes. Reducing domestic violence. Helping veterans access hard-earned benefits. Protecting seniors from fraud.

Every day, Illinois’ legal aid providers help level the playing field for people fighting to make ends meet. And for the past 20 years, the IL Equal Justice Foundation (IEJF) has been proud to support them. The IEJF distributes the State of Illinois’ annual budget appropriation for civil legal aid to nonprofit programs across the state.

Housed in the Attorney General’s budget, the state appropriation for civil legal aid stands at $1.4 million. The high water mark for the appropriation was $3.5 million in 2007, which was slashed 50% in 2010. State funding was then cut an additional 20% in fiscal year 2013 to the current level of $1.4 million.

In the face of this underfunding, the IEJF has worked hard to maximize its impact – and our grantees reflect that. By supporting both large legal aid programs that provide a breadth of services, as well as community-based groups that bring the law to where people live, we help more people access the justice system to improve their lives. In fact, in FY 2018 and 2019, IEJF-funded programs secured more than $29M in financial benefits for struggling Illinoisans.

But we now face perhaps the greatest challenge in protecting the legal rights of vulnerable Illinois families, seniors and veterans.

A Crisis in Our Courts

The COVID-19 Pandemic has led to surge of legal problems in every community across our state.  Over the last month, our grantee Illinois Legal Aid Online reports a 1040% increase in use of its unemployment tools and a 1084% increase in use of emergency food stamp resources.

And beyond these statistics, we see stories like these: Parents skipping meals so their children can eat after being wrongfully denied benefits. Families living in fear of losing their homes over missed rent payments. And partners and children victimized by increased violence while isolated at home.

However, we fear the current need for legal assistance may just be the tip of the iceberg. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to lead to a crisis in our court system that will overwhelm Illinois’ already overburdened, and underfunded, legal aid programs.

A Critical Part of Illinois’ Pandemic Response

That’s why we are calling on the IL General Assembly to protect the current IEJF appropriation of $1.4 M in the FY 2021 budget. 

It’s clear legal aid is an essential part of Illinois’ response to, and recovery from, the COVID-19 pandemic. From identifying workers’ eligibility for unemployment and family-leave benefits to helping families deal with disputes over medical or consumer debt, only legal aid can help solve many of the problems caused by illness and business closures. Without access to legal assistance, people struggling to make ends meet may never be able to recover from the fallout from this pandemic.

Illinois’ front-line legal aid providers have quickly adapted to serve as many people as they can through remote client consultations, representation in telephonic emergency hearings and expanded hotline and online resources. A list of available legal aid resources can be found here.

But even before the outbreak, these programs were only able to help one in every six Illinoisans facing a life-changing legal problem. And now, with so many more Illinoisans in need, we must redouble our commitment to justice for all.

Your Call to Action

The Illinois General Assembly will be reconvening this week to begin final budget negotiations. Please contact your state legislators as soon as possible and urge them to protect the civil legal aid appropriation in the FY 21 budget. Our advocacy tool makes it quick and easy.

For more about why legal aid must be part of any comprehensive pandemic solution, view our COVID-19 & Legal Aid one-pager here.

You can also learn more about two other State-funded programs the IEJF manages – the IL Armed Forces Legal Aid Network (IL-AFLAN) and the Cannabis Expungement Program.

Every Illinoisan facing a serious civil legal problem during this crisis deserves to access the legal help and information they need.

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