House General Services Appropriation Committee Testimony
June 14, 2017
- Good afternoon. My name is Leslie Corbett and I serve as the Executive Director of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today about the importance of state funding for civil legal aid and the urgent need for the passage of a state budget. In case you are wondering why civil legal aid is germane to this Committee, funding for the IL Equal Justice Foundation passes through the budget of the Attorney General. General Madigan is a strong supporter of our work.
- So what is civil legal aid and why is it important?
- Unlike in criminal matters, the Constitution does not guarantee legal assistance in civil cases, and tens of thousands of Illinoisans cannot afford the help they need when facing potentially life-changing situations. They have to navigate these complex legal situations on their own. Without legal help, many lose their families, homes and livelihoods.
- Civil legal aid helps ensure fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money they have.
- The justice system is a powerful tool for stopping devastating events. Legal aid organizations resolve major crises like:
- Families losing their homes and ending up on the streets;
- Women and children trapped in violent relationships;
- Elderly homeowners scammed by predatory contractors;
- Parents losing care for critically ill children because of misfiled paperwork.
- Via a state appropriation, the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation funds nonprofit civil legal aid programs across Illinois, ensuring that all residents, regardless of income, have equal access to the justice system. These programs build stronger communities and a stronger Illinois.
- Since 2001, the IEJF has awarded $23.3 million in state-funded grants to nonprofit organizations, assisting over 560,000 vulnerable families, seniors and veterans impacted by domestic violence, foreclosure, loss of veterans’ benefits and consumer fraud. Grantees include Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, Prairie State Legal Services and Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation.
- The Illinois Equal Justice Foundation’s civil legal aid appropriation was not included in the stopgap budget – meaning these services that help keep low-income families and seniors housed, safe and economically independent are in jeopardy.
- The legal aid system is starting to unravel. Legal aid organizations are reducing staff and serving less clients due to the lack of state funding.
- Prairie State Legal Services, an organization that is the only game in town in 36 northern and western counties, was forced to lay off 14 attorneys and support staff due to funding uncertainty.
- Domestic violence legal aid providers were hit multiple times by the state’s inability to pass a budget. Chicago’s Domestic Violence Legal Clinic served 8% fewer clients this January compared to 2016 and has been unable to fill a vacancy due to funding uncertainty.
- The delay of Area Agency on Aging funding negatively impacted legal aid providers from providing timely assistance to seniors across the state. This coupled with the lack of IEJF funding meant fewer seniors received assistance in the areas of consumer fraud, wills, housing and guardianship.
- Referral sources for mental health, shelter and food service that help bolster legal aid services had dried up as agencies across the state close their doors due to the budget impasse.
- Federal funding for civil legal aid was not included in President Trump’s budget proposal. A loss of both state and federal funding will be disastrous for Illinois, particularly downstate where two providers serve 101 counties.
- Not all is doom and gloom at the IEJF. In 2015, the legislature amended the Access to Justice Act. It called for a temporary $2 surcharge on civil case filings to fund the development of a legal aid hotline and supporting legal services for veterans and active duty military. The IEJF was designated as the organization to receive these funds and implement the five-year pilot project. This funding ($1.4M) WAS included in the stop-gap budget. The first grants were awarded in May to programs like John Marshall Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic. Today I have Chester Henry with me, a Vietnam Veteran and client of the Veterans Clinic to share his story.
- CHESTER HENRY: Vietnam Marine. Been working on a discharge upgrade for 16 years but could not find the legal resources to complete the job. Was connected with John Marshall Law School Veterans Legal Clinic in 2014 and the discharge upgrade was approved in February 2017. The upgrade means he now has access to his pension as well as VA health services. Stressed that legal services is a huge unmet need for military.
- Without state funding for these services, service men and women in civil legal crisis will have nowhere to turn. The IEJF cannot access these accumulating funds without budget action and appropriation power.
- As I mentioned, both of these funding sources run through the Attorney General’s budget. Both of these appropriations were included in SB 6.
- The measure of a society is how they treat their most vulnerable. Illinois is NOT measuring up. I am here today on behalf the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, our grantee organizations and your constituents in legal crisis seeking true justice. We implore the Governor and the state legislature to work together NOW to pass a budget for Illinois. Without a state budget that includes funding for civil legal aid, people across Illinois in need of legal help will be vulnerable every day.
- Thank you.
Q & A:
- IEJF appropriation was last funded in FY 15 at $1.4M. High water mark was $3.5M that was cut in half in FY 10 and took another 20% cut in FY 13. These appropriations are funded through General Revenue.
- IEJF Access to Justice Fund (vets/military) appropriation is $1.4M as well. This is funded through a $2 surcharge to civil case filings to fund a legal aid hotline and supporting legal services for veterans/active duty military. This is a five-year pilot project. The funds began accumulating in 2015 and end in 2020. The IEJF has received one appropriation of these funds to date.
- Total ask for FY 18 for both of these appropriations is $2.8M, $1.4M for each.
- Of the 10 most populous states, Illinois shares last place with Florida in what it spends on civil legal aid. The average of the other eight states is $21 million.
- Federal Legal Services Corporation funding for Illinois totaled $12.3 in 2016.
For additional information, please contact:
IL Equal Justice Foundation
180 N Stetson, Suite 820
Chicago, IL 60601