On November 9, Presiding Judge Ronald Jacobson, Circuit Clerk Denise McCaffrey and Lynn Roe, Director of the Dixon Public Library announced the opening of a new internet-based legal self-help center at a news conference. The new center is the result of a collaboration among the circuit court, the library, YWCA of Sauk Valley and other community groups. Technical assistance and support was provided by Illinois Legal Aid Online and the Coalition for Equal Justice, two Illinois nonprofit organizations. The legal self-help center has two locations. A computer and printer are located at Circuit Clerk’s Office in the Judicial Court Services Building, 309 S. Galena in Dixon as well as at the Dixon Public Library, 221 S. Hennepin Avenue. The center can also be accessed over the internet, 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week, at http://lee.illinoislegalaid.org.
“Over the past few years, more and more people are coming to court without an attorney,” said Judge Jacobson. “It has been a very frustrating situation for everyone. The court system is complex and can be confusing for a person who does not have an attorney,” he said. “Because we are a nation governed by law, we in the court system have a special obligation to do what we can to ensure that people have meaningful access to the courts,” he continued. “At the same time, we need to ensure that we preserve the court’s role as a neutral decision maker. While there is no adequate substitute for being represented by an attorney, the legal self-help center provides useful information to unrepresented litigants that they can use to learn about their legal problem and prepare carefully for court,” he said.
The circuit clerk’s office often sees people first when they come to court without an attorney. “Almost every day someone comes into our office asking us to help them with their legal matter. We are not attorneys, we cannot give legal advice and we cannot even appear to take sides in a case. Sometimes people leave our office frustrated,” said Circuit Clerk Denise McCaffrey. “Now we can refer people without a lawyer to the public access computer in our office during regular business hours or they can go to the public library to use the legal self-help center computer. They can get information about their legal problem and learn about how court systems operate,” she said. The Circuit Clerk’s staff will also hand out a sheet that advises people about different options for finding an attorney as well as informing them about the new legal self-help center. “Preparing for a court hearing takes time. Court papers will still need to be filed at our office in the Court Services Building,” the circuit clerk said.
“From the library’s perspective, we are happy to be working with the court system to provide this new resource for our patrons,” said Lynn Roe, Director of the Dixon Public Library. “With an internet-based site, people can access the legal self-help center from home or from public access computers at the library or in the circuit clerk’s office,” she said. “For those who do not have a home computer, the library provides a place where they can connect to the internet and use the legal self-help center materials,” the library director said.
“It would be ideal if every litigant who comes to court could have an attorney to represent him or her,” said Judge Jacobson. “The reality is that there are many more low income clients who need representation than Prairie State Legal Services attorneys or pro bono attorneys can help,” he said. “The legal self-help center should be particularly helpful to these people who previously had nowhere to turn for help,” he said. “It is not the perfect solution nor will it work for everyone. It is, however, an important component in making equal access to justice more of a reality,” concluded Judge Jacobson.
“The legal self-help center provides legal information on the simpler legal problems of lower income individuals,” said Teri Ross, Outreach Coordinator of Illinois Legal Aid Online. “The site has instructional videos on civil legal topics as well as such things as going to court on your own. Court pleadings and other legal documents can also be found on the site along with lots of legal information written for people who are not familiar with legal terms,” she said. “The information on the website is reviewed regularly by Illinois Legal Aid Online staff lawyers to ensure that the information on the website is current,” she said.
The Lee County Legal Self-Help Center is the thirty-fourth new legal self-help center opened since 2007 in Illinois. The start up funding for the Lee Center comes from a grant from the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation through Prairie State Legal Services. The Illinois Equal Justice Foundation receives its funding from the Illinois General Assembly. The Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice is funded by the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois. Illinois Legal Aid Online receives funding from a variety of sources including the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois and the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation.
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