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The newly poor in Illinois lack legal assistance, report says

by Kelsey Snell
Oct 07, 2009

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Justice gap study
Thousands of poor people in Illinois are being turned away from legal aid services as non-profit organizations struggle to meet the needs of the newly poor, according to a new report from the national Legal Services Corporation.

The study was released on September 30, just one day after the U.S. Census Bureau released statistics showing that more than 40,000 Illinoisans fell below the poverty line in 2008.

“There is no question that there still remains a substantial justice gap in the country,” said Helanie Barnett, resident of the Legal Services Corporation. “We are turning away on average one person for every one person we help.”

Legal Services Corporation funds a network of legal aid organizations that accounts for the majority of legal services to the poor, Barnett said. The corporation was assigned by Congress to administer the federally-funded civil legal assistance program based on the census, which is taken every 10 years.

Though federal funding to Illinois legal aid organizations increased 10 percent last year, the legal issues facing the newly poor are overwhelming many local organizations.

“There are 1.5 million poor people in Chicago and suburban Cook County,” said Diana White, executive director of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. “We know we’re not even getting the tip of the iceberg when we’re getting between 27,000 and 30,000 calls each year.”

White said that what concerns her more than the number of calls they record is the number of calls they may never receive.

“Sometimes the phone lines are completely full by 10:30 a.m.,” White said. “The thing that I don’t think any of these studies capture is the people who don’t get through the phone system.”

Caseloads and call lines are also full at the Legal Aid Bureau of Metropolitan Family Services, said Executive Director Kendra Reinshagen.

“Some people are hanging up because they can’t wait any longer,” Reinshagen said.

One of the greatest challenges facing both organizations is the lack of state funding, according to the Legal Services Corporation report.

 “This year the state budget reduced funding by half,” Reinshagen said. “Whether it is politics or fiscal issues, the citizens in the state are hurting.”