The legal aid system in Illinois is made up of dozens of independent not-for-profit organizations, ranging from one-lawyer agencies concentrating on a single legal issue to organizations with scores of staff members addressing a wide range of client needs.
In addition to representation by staff and pro bono attorneys, legal assistance is provided through telephone hotlines, web-based self-help materials, court-based advice desks, and walk-in clinics. In 2015, legal aid programs provided direct legal assistance to over 140,000 low-income individuals and families. Tens of thousands of others accessed web-based legal information.
The most common types of legal problems addressed by the legal aid system include family law (domestic violence, child custody, divorce, guardianship); housing law (evictions, foreclosure, conditions issues); consumer law (collections, repossessions, utility shutoffs, bankruptcy); immigration (citizenship, family reunification, asylum); and access to public benefits (Medicaid, SSI, SNAP, TANF).
Funding for the legal aid system comes from a wide variety of sources. The federal Legal Services Corporation is the single largest contributor to legal aid in Illinois, while the Lawyers Trust Fund is the largest funding source based in the state. Additional funding is provided by contributions from law firms and individual lawyers; support from bar foundations; government contracts; grants from foundations and corporations; fundraising events; and cy pres awards.
Despite the exemplary efforts of hundreds of legal aid staff members and thousands of volunteers, demand for legal services continues to exceed supply:
- The 2005 Legal Aid Safety Net study [PDF] found that low-income Illinois residents received help for only one out of every six legal problems they face.
- Outside of Cook County, only 118 full-time equivalent staff attorneys are available to serve the legal needs of low-income people in 101 counties.
- Because of high demand, legal aid hotlines are able to answer less than half of the calls they receive.
- An agency representing victims of domestic violence reports having to turn away one woman with a meritorious case for every client they accept.
The Lawyers Trust Fund is dedicated to addressing these needs and ensuring that all Illinois residents have meaningful access to justice.