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The state of the State

Unmet legal needs of the poor:
'A Plan for Action'?


'' I couldn't find a lawyer because I couldn't pay money to afford a lawyer. Lawyers cost money and I barely have enough for food, rent and utilities." This comment by one of Illinois' poor could be made by over 200,000 Illinois residents.

For a long time members of Illinois' legal community suspected that the needs of the state's poor for legal services were not being adequately met. In 1987 the Chicago Bar Association and the Illinois State Bar Association decided to sponsor a statewide assessment of these needs. The result, Illinois Legal Needs Study, was released on October 16. Even a conservative reaction to its details would conclude that the situation has passed crisis and reached disaster.

Founded in 1866, Illinois' program of legal services for the poor is the nation's second oldest. Chicago has the greatest number of private assistance programs in the country. But Illinois allocates fewer state and local funds for such assistance than most states, and poverty in Illinois is generally worse than it is nationwide. Between 1980 and 1987, the period of this study, the poverty rate in Illinois increased from 11 to 15.1 percent and ran above the national average. Surprisingly, the rate was higher in rural areas than in the cities, but the minority urban population is in dire straits. In Chicago, 62.3 percent of the poor are black, and the income gap between blacks and whites is the greatest in the nation. Another distressing figure shows that nearly one child out of every five in Illinois is in a family below the national poverty line.

This country has a long history of legislative help for its poor, but the programs, together with the laws establishing them, are increasingly complex. The study estimates that there are one million legal problems among Illinois' poor annually, of which 80 percent are unmet. Said one respondent to the phone survey made for this study, "I doubt if a lawyer could do any good when you're messing with the state. Because it's state aid that provides the benefits and if you don't kiss (up to them), you don't get anything. There ain't no way we could afford a lawyer anyway." Many of the poor are not served by the programs for which they are eligible simply because they cannot cope with legal intricacies, and 43 percent are unaware of the services available.

The organizations that provide aid are not coping adequately with the 20 percent of problems that they do handle, largely because of underfunding. Between 1980 and 1987 funding for all service programs in Illinois increased by 36 percent, but during the same period the Consumer Price Index rose 38 percent.

The major assistance program is the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC). A 25 percent cut in LSC's budget in 1982 was disastrous. In the eight-year study period its funding increased 14 percent, but it was statutorily required to divert 12.5 percent from staff programs to the Private Attorney Involvement program, meaning that there was no real growth. During this period the caseload for all service providers increased 67 percent.

LSC responded to the funding crisis by

10/January 1990/Illinois Issues

closing 15 offices, 13 of them outside Cook County, obviously expanding the area covered by each that remained open. (One downstate office covers a radius of 100 miles.) Those offices that have remained open are far apart, often in regions with no adequate public transportation. Consequently the poor in those areas cannot get to the services. LSC staff has been known to travel 50 miles to reach needy clients, meaning that valuable staff time is wasted in 100-mile round trips.

LSC also reduced the number of attorneys by 34 percent and cut support staff by 20 percent. Merely to return to 1980 levels would require $5 million more annually, while a "minimum access" level of two attorneys per 10,000 poor (compared to the state average of 40 attorneys per 10,000 population) would require another $5.7 million.

Part of the slack was taken up by other programs. Private funding doubled during the period, but it represents only 15 percent of all funds and is typically of limited term and narrow application to special needs. To complicate matters, all but one of the non-LSC programs are in the Chicago-Cook County area.

Staff turnover for LSC and private programs is high, partly because of the enormous caseload but largely because of low salaries. The average starting salary for an attorney in LSC is $18,500 (For gross comparison, top law school graduates entering Chicago's largest law firms start at $66,000.), while in one program support staff begin at federal minimum wage! The study comments, "To date, programs have been fortunate to find qualified and committed staff attorneys.'' That they have found any at all seems miraculous; that they will continue to do so seems doubtful.

All programs have reacted by limiting the categories of service offered, by periodically stopping intake of new cases and by concentrating on brief service, usually offering advice which they know many of the poor cannot carry out. Some help comes from free, so-called "pro bono service" by attorneys. This service, however, is concentrated in the Chicago area, partly because the only organized programs are located there and partly by the scarcity of attorneys in some areas (There are only two in Pike County.).

Thus, needs vary widely across the state, and the study also identified the unique unmet needs of nine special populations: children, the disabled, AIDS victims, the elderly, incarcerated individuals, the homeless, migrant farmworkers, victims of domestic violence and people with language barriers.

The situation statewide is complex, and there are no simple solutions. Some problems can be attacked immediately; much of this effort will have to come from the provider agencies and the legal community. Some difficulties will only be solved by long-range planning, and here the courts and the government have a more important role.

The report's summary consisted of a body of major findings and a group of specific findings for each of the various entities involved: the legal community, the courts, funding organizations, government and organized assistance programs. Another 70 recommendations were appended to the report. They were divided among these same entities. They ranged from short-term remedies to long-term policy suggestions and fall into categories that cut across the various entities as well as across the short and long range. They include suggestions for increasing funds from all sources and using them more efficiently, extending pro bono service, achieving greater efficiency in the operations of service providers, serving rural areas and urban areas with access problems, changing operations of the courts to remove inadequacies, etc.

The short-term solutions are addressed to the specific entities that can implement them, with the hope that they will do so immediately. The needs of special populations need broader attention, while all groups must commence study of the long-range recommendations. Since the solutions are so widespread there must be some coordination, especially if action by various levels of government is to be achieved.

Perhaps the strongest hope for long-range improvement is the suggestion that the bar associations press for appointment of a nonpartisan, highly visible Governor's Commission on the Legal Needs of the Poor, comprised of representatives of the various groups addressed by the report. Its task would be "to encourage and monitor the implementation of these recommendations." This may be the best way to fulfill the study's subtitle: "A Plan for Action."

January 1990/Illinois Issues/11

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