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Unrestricted grants fill holes in legal aid

BY JAMIE LOO
LAW BULLETIN STAFF WRITER
JUNE 13, 2014

Unlike other areas of the legal system, immigration court is the only place a child can be put in judicial proceedings without an attorney to represent them, said MARY M. MCCARTHY executive director of Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center.

And with a grant from the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, the NIJC can continue to provide those youths and other immigrants with pro bono legal services.

“LTF funding is critical to our work,” McCarthy said.

The Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois announced more than $7.6 million in grants to 16 organizations on Thursday at a reception held at The Chicago Bar Association.

In addition to $617,500 it gave to 14 legal aid projects in December, LTF has provided a total of $8.28 million in funding to nonprofit legal aid organizations around the state for the upcoming year.

Pro bono legal aid directors said LTF grants are an important part of their annual budgets, particularly because the funds are unrestricted.
Lisa A. Colpoys, executive director of Illinois Legal Aid Online, said many large donors will not provide funding for a nonprofit’s general operating budgets, which means organizations have to constantly come up with new projects to compete for grant dollars.

“It really provides us with organizational stability,” she said. “You can freely use the money to do what you need to do to provide the services that are most needed.”

About a third of ILAO’s $2 million operating budget is supported by LTF funding; this year the organization received $630,000.
ILAO removes barriers to legal services by providing technology — mobile apps and online resources — to help low-income residents understand and solve legal problems on their own. It also supports the pro bono attorneys who help those individuals.

Colpoys said the LTF grants are an investment in the health and sustainability of legal aid organizations.

“They’ve helped us grow from a small three-person startup to a vibrant not-for-profit,” she said. “We would not be where we are without LTF.”
LTF is the largest funding organization of Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, which received a $685,000 grant. The nonprofit has 2,315 volunteers and operates 21 neighborhood legal clinics across the city.

“It’s huge,” said Margaret C. Benson, CVLS’ executive director. “It will pay my electric bill, legal research and other operations needs. I don’t have to worry that it fits into a program.”

The NIJC, which represents and advocates for immigrants through education, policy reform and litigation, received $400,000. McCarthy said the grant helps the organization provide more than 10,000 immigrants with legal services and support for their roughly 1,500 pro bono attorneys.

The backlog of cases in immigration courts is huge, she said, and some cases take years to be resolved. One NIJC client, a labor organizer who fled Guatemala after he witnessed his brother’s murder, was granted asylum after six years of representation by volunteer attorneys.
McCarthy said LTF’s funding supports that work.

During the reception, LTF also presented Barry C. Taylor, vice president and head of the civil rights team at Equip for Equality, with the Esther R. Rothstein Award.

Taylor thanked LTF for the award and their support of his organization, which advocates for civil and human rights for people with disabilities.
“The resources are oh-so-limited and, as LTF has documented, the legal needs are tremendously great,” he said. “I just feel really fortunate to be able to do the work that I love every single day.”

Joan A. Spiegel, managing attorney of the western regional office of the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation in Alton, was given LTF’s Leadership Award.

LTF Executive Director Ruth Ann Schmitt said the need for legal services has increased significantly across the state over the past several years because of the downturn in the economy.

“The people who were formerly middle class are now eligible for legal aid and the poor are getting poorer,” she said. “It’s very difficult out there.”

Last updated: June 16, 2014

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