Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
June 16, 2005 Volume: 151 Issue: 118
By BILL MYERS
Law Bulletin staff writer
Now that they have successfully lobbied for more state funding, Illinois' legal aid groups will have to lobby to get their share of it.
In the recently approved state budget, Illinois increased the funding it provides for legal aid from $472,900 to $2 million.
But as is often the case for nonprofits, a sudden windfall sparks questions of how best to use it.
The extent of the debate should not be oversold, legal aid leaders caution: the groups are glad to have any amount of extra money.
'It's a good dilemma. I mean, if trying to figure out how to spend $2 million is our biggest problem, we're doing very well,' said Leslie A. Corbett, the executive director of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation.
Still, Corbett acknowledges that the increased funding has put her foundation 'on a new path.'
'This first year is going to be an experimental year, obviously. We want to maximize effectiveness but to do it in a way that we're not going to hurt organizations that have depended on us. There's a lot to balance right now in making sure that we do this effectively,' Corbett said.
The Equal Justice Foundation will distribute the money to Illinois legal aid groups, under the supervision of the attorney general's office.
The Illinois Equal Justice Act, which created the Equal Justice Foundation six years ago, requires that money go to one of four subject-matter areas.
They are: advice and referral (like telephone hotlines), pro se services (such as help desks at circuit courts), mediation, and direct legal representation.
Like Corbett, most legal aid leaders say publicly that they want to strike a balance among those broad categories.
But how to define 'balance' in a state that, among the most populous states, ranks dead last in per capita legal funding?
It would be great if I got to decide what to do with it. We're certainly going to be lobbying for an increase in our funding,' said Allen C. Schwartz, the executive director of the Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services, Cook County's legal aid hotline.
CARPLS handles up to 14,000 phone calls and 2,000 small legal cases per month, Schwartz said. His group spends about $35 per client and screens out minor cases so that groups that provide direct legal services can concentrate their resources.
Others see things differently.
'I'm personally convinced that you could put millions of dollars into hotlines, and it still wouldn't reach enough people,' said Joseph A. Dailing, executive director of Prairie State Legal Services Inc., which serves the poor in northern and western Illinois, outside of Cook County.
Dailing said that money — in any subject matter category — is best spent on adding more staff.
'Even with technology in the end, it involves someone sitting down and talking to another person,' Dailing said.
Prairie State runs its own hotline, provides assistance in pro se cases and also offers direct representation in complex cases.
Robert A. Glaves, the executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation and a liaison to the board of the Equal Justice Foundation, says that this debate has been going on for a long time.
He suggests thinking of legal aid as of a hospital emergency room.
Most of the patients can be treated quickly and cheaply, with 'take two and call me in the morning' kind of advice,' Glaves said. But some are in dire need of surgery.
The problem is, 'there's no credible formula that exists where you can say, X percent for this and Y percent for this. We all just need to be as strategic as possible,' Glaves said.
This is not an idle question: according to a Lawyers' Trust Fund of Illinois report earlier this year, Illinois' poor fended for themselves in 1.1 million out of 1.3 million legal problems in 2003.
At least 140,000 indigent residents sought, but could not obtain, legal counsel in 2003, the survey found.
Glaves and others say that part of the problem is that the $2 million in state funding — while helpful — is still not enough.
Currently, a total of $36 million is spent each year on legal aid in Illinois, coming from a range of sources including grants from charitable foundations, federal funds and gifts.
The legal needs survey suggested that it would take spending of at least $85 million if the minimum legal needs of the state's poor are to be met.
Glaves and other legal aid leaders have suggested that the state pay $5 million per year.
State Sen. Kirk W. Dillard, R-Westmont, who co-sponsored the legislation increasing the legal aid budget, said that level of state funding was not likely to be reached soon.
Dillard says he is sympathetic to the needs of legal aid, but adds that the increase to $2 million in state funding 'was an extraordinary jump at a time when the state has enormous fiscal problems.'
Corbett and members of the Equal Justice Foundation's board are scheduled to meet with officials at the attorney general's office on Friday.
She said she expects that the foundation will rework grant criteria through the summer. Tough decisions will have to be made, Corbett said — but it's nice to be in a position to make them.
'Our foundation hasn't had to do this before. We drafted guidelines once and we never got more money. This is a whole new process, a whole new path, but it's one we're happy to be on,' she said.
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