September 27, 2017
In remarks to over 500 legal aid advocates in Chicago on September 7, Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier stressed the importance of equal access to justice as a fundamental organizing principle of our society.
“When people feel that they cannot find meaningful redress through the court system, they will eventually look to other means to settle their grievances,” he said.
Chief Justice Karmeier’s speech opened the Illinois Legal Aid Advocates Conference, which brought together staff attorneys, paralegals, pro bono coordinators, and management staff from not-for-profit legal aid groups throughout the state. The conference, which has been held every three years since 2002, offers collaboration and continuing education opportunities for legal aid staff members. The Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois is the main organizer and financial sponsor of the conference. The event was co-sponsored by The Chicago Bar Foundation, the Illinois Bar Foundation, and the Polk Bros. Foundation.
The 569 registrants at the 2017 conference, which was held at McCormick Place, could choose from 47 training and education sessions offered over two days. Topics ranged from advanced advocacy strategies for assisting victims of domestic violence to recognizing signs of diminished capacity in clients to how technology is changing the practice of law. Participants qualified for up to nine hours of Minimum Continuing Legal Education credit.
Recalling his own experience as a trial court judge, Chief Justice Karmeier noted that unrepresented litigants pose unique challenges for judges, opposing counsel, and other court personnel, as well as for the fair and efficient administration of justice. He enumerated the ways in which the Illinois Supreme Court is working to ensure meaningful access to legal aid services and to the courts, including for those who cannot afford a lawyer. Examples include rules that generate financial support for the Lawyers Trust Fund; the creation of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice; and the establishment of a permanent Civil Justice Division in the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts.
The staff of the Civil Justice Division presented a seminar at the conference entitled “Your Day in Court.” The session detailed efforts by staff and volunteers to make courts more user-friendly, to improve access to interpreters for those with limited English proficiency, and to provide standardized forms for common legal issues.
“I was particularly moved by Chief Justice Karmeier’s presentation,” said Gail Walsh, Director of Program Development at Prairie State Legal Services in Rockford. “It helped connect that we are all players in the justice system and can be proud of our various roles.”
“People who work for legal aid programs have tough, stressful jobs," said Mark Marquardt, executive director of the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois. “Building a sense of community makes them more effective in their roles, and the conference is a great opportunity to collaborate, share experiences, and build relationships.”
Individuals on the front lines of providing legal aid services agreed.
“We have a very limited budget for professional development,” said Margaret Duval, executive director of the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic in Chicago. “The conference makes it possible for our entire staff to get high-quality training from experienced practitioners. It’s also energizing to connect with colleagues from all over the state.”
“It’s a great opportunity to get to know folks who we can call when we’re struggling with particular cases,” said Clarissa Gaff, managing attorney of the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation office in Alton. “The conference is an empowering reminder that we are part of a movement that seeks justice, and that we’re not in it alone.”