The Honorable Lisa Wilson, Associate Judge in the Tenth Judicial Circuit and Chair of PILI’s Tenth Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee, was our featured guest speaker at our Annual Pro Bono Reception last June. Below are a portion of her remarks.
I have had the privilege of working with the Public Interest Law Initiative for approximately 15 years. I had the opportunity to work with PILI during the time that I worked as a staff attorney and Managing Attorney at the Prairie State Legal Services office in Peoria. Since becoming an Associate Judge in Peoria County (the 10th Judicial Circuit), I have worked with our local bar association, the attorneys, PILI and the judiciary to establish the Tenth Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee.
The mission of PILI is to cultivate a lifelong commitment to public interest law and pro bono service within the Illinois legal community to expand the availability of legal services for individuals, families and communities in need. PILI’s Pro Bono Program works to increase the availability of pro bono legal help for those who cannot afford an attorney in Illinois by developing pro bono opportunities, offering pro bono programming and resources, cultivating best practices and celebrating the transforming, life-changing pro bono performed throughout this entire state.
There are approximately 13 million residents in the state of Illinois who live in urban, suburban and rural areas. The diversity of Illinois is reflected daily in the court system. Almost one-third of the residents live in or near poverty. While 1.7 million residents live below the federal poverty guideline (FPG), another 2.1 million live just above it. Even for those who qualify for legal services, it is not a given that they will have a legal aid lawyer representing them with their issue due to the ratio of individuals needing legal representation and the small number of legal aid attorneys available. In addition, for those individuals whose incomes are above the FPG, it is not realistic to believe that these individuals will be able to retain private counsel. The justice gap is increasing for this segment of the population because they may not have the financial resources to retain private counsel.
With this backdrop, it should be no surprise that the number of Illinois residents appearing in court without an attorney has soared. In 2015, statistics from the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts showed that 93 of the 102 counties reported more than half of their civil cases had at least one self-represented litigant. These numbers mirror what is being seen nationally. In urban, suburban and rural communities throughout Illinois, more and more litigants are attending court without an attorney.
So, many of you are familiar with the problems. What are the solutions? This is where the great work of PILI comes in. Through their Pro Bono Program, they have several projects which have been started to address some of these barriers:
- Pro Bono Initiative facilitates the sharing of best practices through pro bono resources and programming including CLEs and training.
- Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network (IL-AFLAN) provides civil legal services to veterans, active duty military and their spouses and dependents.
- Legal Help Within Reach brings attorney and law student volunteers from urban areas to volunteer at free legal clinics for low-income residents living in rural and underserved communities.
- Self-Represented Litigant Help Desks organizes volunteer attorneys to meet with self-represented litigants at the Peoria and Tazewell County Courthouses for 30 minute appointments to help them understand and navigate the legal process, fill out forms and answer questions.
- Conflict of Interest Pro Bono Referral Panel Pilot Program provides a referral source for Prairie State’s Peoria office to send potential clients in the 10th Judicial Circuit who have been denied services due to an existing conflict of interest.
- Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committees work with local lawyers, bar associations and judges to identify gaps in the delivery of legal services to low-income individuals and families and developing innovative approaches to filling those gaps through pro bono.
In the 10th Judicial Circuit, we are very thankful to work in partnership with the Public Interest Law Initiative in expanding the ways that we can offer pro bono to the residents in Peoria, Tazewell, Marshall, Stark and Putnam Counties. With PILI’s assistance and leadership, we have made strides in meeting the needs of those who would not otherwise have a voice in the legal system. Through their partnership, we have been able to provide the help desks in Peoria and Tazewell Counties, offer direct pro bono legal assistance to those who are not eligible to receive legal assistance through Prairie State due to a conflict and we have been able to provide training to lawyers who are interested in representing individuals with family law, guardianship, child support and expungement and sealing cases.