Safeguarding the elderly from abuse. Making sure people with disabilities have access to services. Fighting for the rights of domestic violence victims. Protecting consumers from fraud.
This is what nonprofit legal aid providers do every day for people in Illinois who are struggling to make ends meet and need the help of a lawyer. But without funding from the state, these critical organizations cannot help Illinois residents.
Unlike defendants in criminal cases, people facing a civil legal crisis, no matter how serious, do not have a constitutional right to a lawyer. This leaves vulnerable individuals to navigate the complicated legal system on their own, without an advocate to fight for them. In Illinois, legal aid organizations step in — representing people in court and providing information and resources they need to understand their legal rights.
A poignant example is Larry, a 65-year-old disabled and homeless Vietnam veteran whose daughter abused him and drained his bank account, taking his veteran’s pension and Social Security disability payments. After she was arrested, Larry was placed in a homeless shelter.
Fortunately, Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation was able to come to his aid, helping Larry open a new bank account and filing paperwork with the Veterans’ Administration and Social Security Administration to ensure he received his monthly benefits. Thanks to the legal help he received, Larry is now living safely in an assisted living facility.
Unfortunately, there continues to be a major need for civil legal services, with thousands of Illinoisans unable to get the critical legal help they need each day.
Illinois has long recognized the important work of civil legal aid organizations. Last year, the state provided $1.4 million for the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation (IEJF) to distribute to nonprofit legal aid programs around the state. Since 2001, state funding has allowed legal aid organizations to help over 560,000 people in every county across Illinois.
These are challenging budget times, but civil legal aid is a smart investment for Illinois because it reduces the need for much costlier social services in the future. When people have access to the justice system, they have greater stability and financial independence. Civil legal aid levels the playing field so that working families, veterans and seniors may protect their families, their homes and their health.
At a time when federal funding for legal aid organizations across the country is being threatened, the General Assembly must continue to invest in these vital programs in Illinois.
Every person deserves to have an advocate fight for them in the courtroom.
Lisa Madigan is the attorney general in Illinois.