Stephenson County Courts Provide Assistance to Lower-Income Residents

On March 31, Presiding Judge Theresa Ursin announced the opening of a new Stephenson County Legal Self-Help Center in Freeport.  The center will be located in the Freeport Public Library.  This center is the result of collaboration among the Stephenson County judiciary, the Office of Circuit Clerk Bonnie Curran and the Freeport Public Library and its director, Carol Dickerson.  The center is internet-based and will provide current and correct legal information on Illinois law for residents who must represent themselves in court.

“There are an increasing number of people showing up at the courthouse without an attorney.  While we would prefer that everyone have a lawyer, universal representation does not appear to be likely now or in the foreseeable future.  We can, however, provide these unrepresented litigants with information on Illinois law and on court operations.  Armed with this information, we hope that they will come to court with a more complete understanding of how the system works,” said Judge Ursin.  “Since most people have only an incomplete understanding of how the court system works, prior to the legal self-help center many unrepresented people would leave the courthouse angry and frustrated.  If people take the time to prepare, now they can go to court with a better understanding of their legal problem and how to present it to the judge,” she said. 

The Stephenson County Legal Self-Help Center is an internet-based center which provides legal information and court documents on a broad array of simpler civil legal problems.  The website, available at http://stephenson.illinoislegalaid.org, also has instructional videos explaining the operations of the court system, how to go to court and other topics.   The front page of the website features a short welcoming video by Chief Judge Michael Mallon of the Fifteen Judicial Circuit which includes Stephenson County.  The home page also lists the hours of operation and location of the Freeport Public Library with six examples of common civil legal problem.  A search bar at the bottom of the page allows individuals to search for information on other legal issues. 

“Last fall after a demonstration of the legal self-help center and considering that there was no start up money required, Judge Ursin, Carole Dickerson and I decided that we wanted to set up a center for Stephenson County,” said Bonnie Curran, Circuit Clerk.  “We contacted Illinois Legal Aid Online and the Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice and asked them to provide us technical support and guidance in setting up the center.   We have benefited from their experience and expertise in setting up similar centers in other counties around the state,” she said.  “Because Carole Dickerson and the Freeport Public Library were willing to collaborate on this project, our dream has become a reality and we have our own Stephenson County Legal Self-Help Center,” Curran continued.

“While anyone with a computer and internet access can use the website, the materials on it are geared to the simpler legal problems of lower income people,” said Teri Ross of Illinois Legal Aid Online.  “The legal information and resources on the website will not help everyone.  When a person seeking a divorce owns real estate or has a retirement plan, the automated forms on the legal self-help center cannot be used.  In dealing with more complicated legal problems, people are strongly advised to find a lawyer, either through Prairie State Legal Services or the Illinois State Bar Association’s lawyer referral program,” she said.  Illinois Legal Aid Online maintains and updates the underlying website for the Stephenson County Legal Self-Help Center, http://stephenson.illinoislegalaid.org.

“The Freeport Public Library is very excited to be a part of this new project,” said Carole Dickerson.  “We are happy to be a part of this community-wide collaboration to provide legal information to people who must go to court without an attorney.  Because of the support of the citizens of Freeport and several major private bequests, the Freeport Public Library has a modern building and up-to-date resources for the community.  Adding the legal self-help center to our existing resources seemed like a needed and logical step,” she said.  “Our librarians will be available to show people how to use the website.”

The Stephenson County Legal Self-Help Center is the twentieth of a “new generation” of legal self-help centers which have opened in various Illinois counties since 2007.  Similar centers exist in Winnebago, Boone and Ogle Counties.  “This is a challenging time for courts in Illinois,” said Joseph A. Dailing, Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice.  “With a slumping economy, even more people are forced to go to court without an attorney.  Luckily, Illinois judges and circuit clerks are actively working to ensure that lower income individuals with legal problems have a more meaningful access to the court system.  The self-help centers are one way to improve that access.  The Coalition is proud to be a part of this process,” said Dailing.

For additional information, please contact: Judge Theresa Ursin, Stephenson County Courthouse
 

Submitted by: Illinois Legal Aid Online | More news from this organization
Posted: 03/31/2009

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