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Supporting the Legal Aid Safety Net

10/25/2017

October 25, 2017

For the 1.6 million Illinois residents who live in poverty, paying market rates for the services of an attorney in private practice is an unattainable luxury. For these individuals and families, not-for-profit legal aid organizations are the last, best hope when faced with a legal problem that threatens the stability of their families, their housing, their health, or their finances.

The Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois (“LTF”) provides more funding for civil legal aid than any other state-based entity, and is second only to the federal Legal Services Corporation in the amount distributed to Illinois legal aid groups. In the fiscal year ending June 2018, LTF will distribute just over $9.1 million to support 36 legal aid organizations and projects.  (A list of LTF grants is available here.)

Supporting Cost-Effective Services
The legal aid system in Illinois employs approximately 500 full-time equivalent attorneys, a number far too small to address the civil legal needs of every low-income household in all 102 counties. As a result, legal aid programs are forced to set priorities, identify those who face the most serious issues for representation, and find creative ways to help as many people as possible.

The Lawyers Trust Fund uses its grants to encourage this creativity and to support a wide range of service-delivery strategies. While the majority of LTF funding underwrites the work of staff attorneys who specialize in addressing the legal needs of poor families, grants also help legal aid groups coordinate the work of pro bono volunteers, to provide advice via telephone, to support community-based legal clinics, and to create internet-based self-help resources.

“In an ideal world, everyone with a legal question would be able to consult an attorney and everyone with a serious legal problem would have a lawyer to represent them,” said LTF executive director Mark Marquardt. “In the real world, the challenge is to provide cost-effective options that reach as many people as possible while still offering help that makes a difference.”

Covering the State
The low-income population of Illinois is almost evenly divided between Cook County and the other 101 counties in Illinois. The Lawyers Trust Fund’s support for legal aid reflects that fact.  In the current fiscal year, 47% of LTF grants were made to organizations based in Cook County, 45% to programs serving other areas of the state, and 8% to initiatives with a statewide impact. The Lawyers Trust Fund’s two largest grantees are Rockford-based Prairie State Legal Services ($1,775,000), which serves 36 counties in Northern and Central Illinois, and East St. Louis-based Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance ($1,720,000), which serves 65 counties in Central and Southern Illinois.  

“We know that there are special challenges – both for clients and for attorneys – that come with providing legal services to families in more rural areas,” Marquardt said. “Our goal is always equal access to legal help for people in need, no matter what part of the state they live in.”  

In addition to Prairie State Legal Services and Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance, LTF makes grants to support special-purpose legal aid projects based in Aurora, Carbondale, Decatur, East St. Louis, Normal, Springfield, and Wheaton.  Many Chicago-based projects provide some services to residents of other parts of the state, as well.

The Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois is a not-for-profit entity created in 1983 as a joint project of the Illinois State and Chicago Bar Associations. Pursuant to rules promulgated by the Illinois Supreme Court, LTF receives interest income under the Interest on Lawyer Trust Account (IOLTA) program and a portion of the annual registration fee paid by Illinois attorneys. More information on the Lawyers Trust Fund is available at www.ltf.org.