Posted April 26, 2017 9:35 AM
Updated May 1, 2017 10:08 AM

Tightening the screws

Patricia Bellock
Leslie Corbett
Margaret Duval
Diana White
By David Thomas
Law Bulletin staff writer

Things have not gotten better for Prairie State Legal Services in the past year.

Last year, Director Michael T. O’Connor said the clinic was running a deficit as a result of flat funding from the federal government and other sources and increasing costs, and that it might have to resort to layoffs if its funding situation wasn’t resolved.

It wasn’t. By July, the clinic informed 14 of its employees — a mixture of support staff and practicing attorneys — that they would be laid off by the end of 2016.

The northern Illinois-based clinic also reduced its overall budget from $11.5 million to an even $10 million for its fiscal year 2017 budget.

The shaky financial ground makes it tough for the organization to plan how it can serve.

“If there’s a cut, there’s going to have to be a corresponding cut in staffing,” O’Connor said.

The layoffs stand out as the most dramatic example of how legal aid clinics have been struggling to survive in a state that has not funded them — or other social services — for nearly two years.

The cracks that were starting to show last year continue to deepen. A number of clinics said they are currently unable to fill vacancies on their staff because of the uncertainty surrounding their funding from both the state and federal governments.

“There’s kind of a pall over everything,” according to Leslie Corbett, the executive director of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation. “People are anxious, they’re nervous and it’s hard to plan for the future if you feel like you’re going to lose funding on a bunch of different angles.”

And the groups say there’s not much hope on the horizon. In the state’s 2018 fiscal year that begins July 1, the last portion of a $7.2 million settlement will be distributed to a handful of clinics statewide.

That settlement has essentially acted as a “saving grace” for legal aid clinics, allowing them to receive funding from the state when nothing else has been appropriated.

This means that, absent a budget deal between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled legislature or another multimillion-dollar settlement, legal aid clinics could be looking at no state funding in 2018.

And a new front has opened up at the federal level, as President Donald Trump’s administration budget plan priorities have called for elimination of the Legal Services Corp., a federal lifeline for legal aid clinics in Illinois.

“For all of these grants, what impacts one impacts us all,” said Margaret R. Duval, executive director of the Chicago-based Domestic Violence Legal Clinic.

No budget, no peace

On July 8, 2015 — seven days after the state entered the 2016 fiscal year without a budget passed, Attorney General Lisa M. Madigan announced that a portion of a joint state-federal $136 million settlement with Chase Bank will go to the equal justice foundation to fund legal aid services like consumer debt counseling.

The foundation is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization established under state law to distribute funding to legal aid clinics

The $7.2 million was divided over three years; in December, the foundation’s board of directors approved grants worth a total of $2,274,882 to 30 different clinics and nonprofit organizations.

“We have a one-year cushion, basically,” Corbett said, noting the foundation was not included in the “stopgap budget” that partially funded the state for a few months before expiring on Dec. 31. “That means two years without an appropriation. We are all-in in terms of advocacy in FY2018.”

To help add some policymaking muscle, groups like The Chicago Bar Association, The Chicago Bar Foundation and the Illinois State Bar Association hosted a legislative briefing on the issue along with state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, an Olympia Fields Democrat, and Rep. Patricia R. Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican, on March 29 in Springfield.

In an interview with the Law Bulletin before that session, Corbett said it’s been 12 years since a legislative briefing like it had been held.

“We’re — I wouldn’t say panic mode — but we realize we really have one shot this year to get this done,” Corbett said. “We’re going to do our darnedest to do that.”

Bellock said she became attuned to the needs of legal aid clinics when she met with domestic violence victims from her district who were worried about losing their homes and needed pro bono legal help.

Bellock sits on the board of one of her district’s domestic violence clinics, and one of its last meetings focused heavily on the topic of legal assistance.

Legal aid clinics who focus on domestic violence seem to have been especially hit hard by the budget stalemate, as they have not received funding from the Illinois Department of Human Services.

For instance, 36 percent of domestic violence clinic’s budgeted funding for FY2017 comes from the state — 28 percent directly from Human Services, Duval said.

Clinic directors said they initially thought domestic violence resources through Human Services were funded in the stopgap budget, but they learned in January it wasn’t so.

In a given year, the clinic serves between 1,200 to 1,400 clients who need help getting orders of protection, or representation in family law or immigration matters. The clinic has had a vacancy since fall 2016 it has not been able to fill due to the uncertainty surrounding their funding.

The clinic served 8 percent fewer clients this January than it did in January 2016, Duval said.

The state has been partially operating without a complete budget since July 2015 as the result of an ongoing political showdown between Democratic lawmakers and Rauner.

The governor has pushed business-friendly reforms as part of what he calls a Turnaround Agenda and has vetoed parts of the state budget.

On the national front

The cuts Illinois legal aid clinics could experience at the federal level go beyond the Trump administration’s desire to eliminate the Legal Services Corp.

For instance, a number of legal aid clinics have services funded through community-development block grants, which would also be cut entirely under the administration’s proposed budget.

The city of Chicago uses the block grants to fund LAF’s public benefits enrollment project, which allows it to place paralegals in the city’s workforce-development office to help people enroll for benefits.

The grants also fund some of the clinic’s mortgage foreclosure defense work, according to Diana C. White, LAF’s executive director.

White added that those funds could already be threatened by the Trump’s administration order to punish sanctuary cities — local governments like Chicago’s that refuse to hand over undocumented immigrants for deportation.

“There are plenty of things to worry about,” White said.

The directors of the clinics who receive federal funding — LAF, serving Cook County; Prairie State Legal Services, which serves the northern part of the state; and Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, which serves the rest — said they would experience another wave of massive cutbacks in services and staff if the corporation gets eliminated as planned.

“LSC is little less than half our annual budget, so it would be catastrophic,” White said. “I hope it doesn’t happen … We’ve spent a lot of time talking to legislators what it is we do and emphasizing to people the importance to constituents.”

Legal Services grantees offer legal assistance to people living at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty line — $15,075 for individuals or $30,570 for a family of four living in the continental U.S. The corporation estimated that 60.6 million people are eligible for these services.

Legal Services supporters have continually touted the bipartisan support the corporation has received. The American Bar Association, for instance, launched a grassroots campaign to remind members of Congress of the support the agency has in their districts during their annual lobbying day in April.

But a number of legal aid directors have acknowledged the distinct possibility of being left without state and federal support. If that’s the case, private donations cannot make up that shortfall.

What you can get

It’s not all doom and gloom for legal aid clinics. Both O’Connor and Lois J. Wood, the executive director of the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, touted the grants they received from the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois to specifically help people find work or represent them in foreclosure actions.

The trust fund is a nonprofit foundation established in 1983 that directs the interest on lawyers’ trust accounts, also known as IOLTA accounts, to legal aid clinics.

In 2014, the trust fund was one of several state IOLTA programs who received a portion of $16.65 billion settlement between Bank of America and the U.S. Department of Justice.

With those funds, the trust fund distributed $7.2 million to legal aid clinics for its “ready to work” initiative and for mortgage legal assistance work.

Wood said the trust fund’s work/mortgage assistance funding has allowed her clinic to hire additional staff, but she cannot use the funding to support her current staff.

Meanwhile, the new head of the Chicago Legal Clinic said he plans to turn to the county for help. Clinic Executive Director Adam M. Salzman — the former chief of staff to Cook County Commissioner Richard R. Boykin — noted that, of all levels of government in Illinois, it’s the county that appears to be in the best shape.

Salzman said the clinic already receives funding from the county to operate its help desks in the courthouses. However, he thinks the clinic could take advantage of the grants the county’s Justice Advisory Council doles out for programs to combat recidivism.

“One of the programs the clinic runs … is the weekly live expungement at 26th and California, where the Chicago Legal Clinic is the only counsel on site for individuals that are seeking to have their records expunged,” Salzman said. “That’s directly related to recidivism prevention. If you can have your arrest record expunged, then that clears the way for you to obtain gainful employment.”

“That program is currently unfunded in the clinic’s budget. That would be one area, for example, that might be tailor-made for a recidivism prevention grant at the county level,” he added.

But Salzman acknowledged that the county is not an adequate substitute for state and federal support. That was a sentiment shared by every legal aid clinic director.

“It’s impossible for the legal community or any other private source to make up … if the government stopped funding Medicaid today, there’s no way you can ask doctors and hospitals to do volunteer work to make up for that,” Glaves said. “It’s the same thing with legal help.”

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