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A Message from the Chief Justice

4/19/2017

April 19, 2017

Welcome to Illinois Courts Connect, the e-newsletter of the Judicial Branch of the State of Illinois. Beginning this month, and each month thereafter, I will use this space to address matters of importance to the administration of justice in our state. My first column is devoted to an issue of serious and immediate concern, the threatened defunding of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC).

Since its creation in 1974, LSC has been integral to efforts to insure that our legal system is accessible to all, regardless of personal financial circumstances. Over the past 43 years, LSC has grown to become the largest source of funding for legal aid programs in the United States, providing core funding to more than 130 such programs throughout the country. Our state is home to three of the programs: the Legal Assistance Foundation, Prairie State Legal Services, and Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. Almost half the combined core funding for those organizations comes directly from LSC.

That funding is now in jeopardy. The budget blueprint released by the Trump administration in March calls for LSC to be eliminated. While Legal Assistance Foundation, Prairie State Legal Services, and Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation have worked hard to broaden their funding sources, between them they still receive more than $12 million a year from LSC. In the near term at least, those dollars will be difficult if not impossible to replace. Illinois state government is certainly in no position to fill the gap. If historical trends are any indication, we cannot expect the shortfall to be made up by the practicing bar either.

The consequences of defunding LSC would be devastating. Already overwhelmed by more requests for assistance than they can possibly accommodate, Illinois’ legal aid organizations would be pushed to the brink by the proposed cuts. The resulting casualties would be among the most vulnerable in our society: children, the elderly, veterans, the victims of domestic violence, the survivors of natural disasters and the poor who rely on LSC-funded legal aid organizations in times of crisis as their best hope for fair treatment in our system of justice.

Closing the growing gap in access to legal services is essential if we are to make good on the Constitution’s promise of equal justice for all. It is also sound economics. Every dollar America invests in civil legal services programs is more than offset by the economic benefits that flow from making the justice system more fair and accessible. According to the Chicago and Illinois Bar Associations, the return on investment from legal aid in Illinois is almost 2 to 1.

As most judges and lawyers recognize, the benefits of providing greater access to legal representation are not limited to the increasingly large number of individuals who could not otherwise afford to hire a lawyer. When litigants have lawyers, everyone using the court system is better off.  Unrepresented parties place greater demands on court staff and other resources. Cases proceed more slowly, creating potential backlogs, and it is often more difficult for judges to maintain their impartiality and insure that justice is done when a party to a proceeding cannot fully and properly present his or her case.

The Illinois Supreme Court is committed to making our state’s judicial system more user-friendly and accessible for people who come to court without lawyers. We are confident the various initiatives now underway here will make it easier for people with less complicated issues to effectively handle all or part of their cases on their own. When dealing with more complex or high stakes matters, however, there is simply no substitute for access to an actual lawyer. Unfortunately, for a significant segment of Illinois’ population, LSC-funded programs have become the only realistic hope for finding lawyers who can help and are willing to do so. If LSC funding disappears, that hope will be irreparably harmed.

Earlier this year, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators wrote to the Office of Management and Budget in opposition to the planned defunding of LSC. I have contacted OMB separately to express the same message, as have representatives from many of our nation’s largest law firms and bar associations. Equal justice under the law is not an aspiration. It is a Constitutional command that all members of the bar are bound to uphold. This spring, as the budget process in Washington moves forward, I therefore hope that you, too, will add your voice to the effort to preserve and, if possible, increase funding for the LSC and the organizations it helps support.