SPRINGFIELD — The chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court is adding his voice to others in the legal community calling for renewal of federal funding for attorneys to represent the nation's poor and elderly.
The elimination of $500 million in funding to the Legal Services Corporation proposed in the initial version of the federal budget would mean the loss of the major funding source for 133 legal aid programs across the country, including three in Illinois that receive $12 million to help cover the cost of lawyers for indigent clients.
In a message posted on the state Supreme Court website, Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier said the impact of the cuts proposed by the Trump administration could push to the brink a legal aid system already overwhelmed by requests.
"The resulting casualties would be among the most vulnerable in our society: children, the elderly, veterans, the victims of domestic violence, the survivors of natural disasters and the poor who reply on LSC-funded legal aid organizations in times of crisis as their best hope for fair treatment in our system of justice," said Karmeier's statement.
Last year, three Prairie State Legal Services attorneys represented almost 2,000 individuals in McLean County with 930 non-criminal cases involving divorce, tenant and foreclosure issues, and other civil matters. More than 14,000 cases were handled by Prairie State's 31-county service area.
The majority of local cases involve landlord-tenant issues, according to Adrian Barr, managing attorney for the legal aid office.
If the Trump budget becomes a reality, Prairie State would be forced to cut staff in all its local offices and close smaller ones, said Barr.
"This will mean hundreds or even thousands fewer families, seniors and disabled persons will receive the civil aid they need to keep their utilities and housing, have access to medical care, address serious consumer problems and maintain their safety from domestic violence and elder abuse," said Barr.
Bloomington lawyer Mike McElvain is one of 73 lawyers who donate their time to handle legal aid cases. McElvain estimated that he accepts between six and 15 cases a year that cannot be handled by Prairie State because of a conflict. Most cases involve family and child-related issues.
Pro bono, or representation without fees, work is a responsibility every lawyer has in the community, said McElvain. "Part of being an attorney is helping the powerless against powerful," he said.
Shutting off federal money for legal aid services "would be one of the cruelest things society could do to the vulnerable," said McElvain.
The local legal aid office not only connects people with a lawyer but also brings informational programs to the community on common legal issues that often result in litigation.
Lawyers Helen Ogar and Todd Miller both find time at their Bloomington law practice to help indigent clients who are filing for divorce.
"Attorneys have an obligation to all aspects of society. Justice is supposed to be there for everyone," said Miller, who estimated he has taken as many as 10 cases in a year, including some divorces with complicated issues.
Ogar recalled a pro bono case involving a woman who fled an abusive relationship in another state with her four children. The situation ended with an agreement for financial support and the woman's safe relocation in Central Illinois.
"This is a profession where we're supposed to be seeking justice. Everyone deserves that," said Ogar.
Illinois' two other legal aid centers are the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, which covers 65 counties in central and southern Illinois, and the Legal Assistance Foundation, which serves Chicago and suburban Cook County.