Chief Judge Kathryn E. Zenoff and Circuit Clerk Tom Klein have announced the opening of a Legal Self-Help Center in the Winnebago County Courthouse. Two grants were received from the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation and the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois providing start-up funding.
The Internet-based center will provide legal information to individuals who are not able to retain the services of an attorney for representation in court.
While the Legal Self-Help Center is not a substitute for representation by an attorney, the reality is that many individuals show up in court unrepresented, said Joe Dailing, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice. Most of these people have few or no resources to hire counsel. They attempt to navigate the court system on their own without correct information and with an often incomplete understanding of the workings of the court system. The Legal Self-Help Center will make available correct and current information on Illinois law and court proceedings in less complex, largely civil, legal matters.
The effort to establish the Legal Self-Help Center began more than a year ago with a partnership between the 17th Judicial Circuit Court and the Winnebago County Circuit Clerk to centralize, relocate and make more accessible legal resources available to the public in the Circuit Clerks Office. Further work was done collaboratively with Prairie State Legal Services, the Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice, Illinois Legal Aid Online, Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic and the Winnebago County Bar Association to secure financial resources and to establish a formal center.
Zenoff said: We are particularly pleased that Winnebago County has been selected as the first site in the state outside of Cook County for this new generation of Internet-based legal self-help centers. Other similar Internet-based legal self-help centers will be opening elsewhere in the state over the next few months.
The initial focus of the Winnebago County center will be to provide victims of domestic violence with access to a computer-based, automated system that will allow them to complete their court forms using the format of a simple interview, Zenoff added. Upon completion of the interview, domestic violence victims will be able to produce the necessary legal forms with the push of a button. The Legal Self-Help Center should improve the administration of justice and make the courts more accessible to those individuals who are forced to represent themselves in court.
Two computers will be available for public use in the new Legal Self-Help Center in the Circuit Clerks Office, Room 101 on the first floor of the courthouse. A navigator will be present during normal working hours to assist individuals with using the computer. No legal advice will be provided, only legal information. An additional computer and printer will be available in the WAVE courthouse office to assist victims of domestic violence.
Legal Self-Help Centers have been established in many other states across the country to deal with the increasing number of self-represented litigants. Because this new center in Winnebago County will be computer-based, the self-help materials can be accessed from any computer with Internet access from the Illinois Legal Aid Online site (www.illinoislegalaid.org). Illinois Legal Aid Online is an Illinois, nonprofit organization using technology through its Web sites to create greater access to legal information for low-income and vulnerable residents of Illinois. The Winnebago County Legal Self-Help Center also has manuals and other legal information that are specific to Winnebago County. There is also an introductory, orientation video from Zenoff.
The Illinois Equal Justice Foundation was established by the Illinois General Assembly and receives its funding from the Illinois General Assembly for nonprofit organizations to provide legal information to lower-income individuals. The $35,300 start-up grant award was sent to Prairie State Legal Services to fund the Winnebago County Self-Help Center.
The Community Foundation of Northern Illinois also awarded a $1,500 grant to purchase a computer and printer. This computer and printer will allow WAVE staff in the courthouse domestic violence office to use the new Internet-based system to generate the necessary court papers for domestic violence victims more quickly and efficiently.
The Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice has started working with five other court jurisdictions throughout Illinois to establish model legal self-help centers for lower-income individuals. These counties range from the very rural to urban/rural counties. The Coalition has offices at the Chicago Bar Foundation and the Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic in Rockford.
For more information, contact Zenoff at (815) 319-4800 or Joseph Dailing, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice, at (815) 962-9050.
from the June 6-12, 2007, issue