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‘Legal Deserts’ Create A Gap In Justice — But Local Groups Are Making Getting Help More Accessible

Illinois Legal Aid Online is trying to close the "justice gap" by bring legal help to the Chicago communities that need it the most.

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CHICAGO — Many Chicagoans live in legal deserts where it’s not easy to access legal aid and representation — but local groups are combating that by bringing their services to neighbors.

There is a widening “justice gap” between the legal needs of many residents and what they’re actually provided with, advocates said. Groups like Illinois Legal Aid Online are trying to close it by providing communities with online resources and outreach work that keeps antiracism, diversity, equity and inclusion in mind.

“There’s no way we’re ever going to have enough lawyers to represent every person who has a legal issue every time they have a legal issue,” said Teri Ross, the executive director of Illinois Legal Aid Online. “It’s just not feasible, so how can we help people? Educate people, and lots of people.”

Credit: Illinois Legal Aid Online
Illinois Legal Aid Online, headed by executive director Teri Ross, is working to close what it says is a widening justice gap in many of Chicago’s communities.

Legal deserts often disproportionately affect low-income Chicagoans, as well as Black and Latino residents, women, older people, immigrants, people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community, said Roderick Harris, a spokesperson for Illinois Legal Aid Online. That’s why it’s important their work is intersectional, Harris said.

When people don’t have access to legal coverage, communities are at higher risk of wrongful convictions, unjust evictions, domestic violence, safety issues, financial problems and more — things which have also been exacerbated by the pandemic, Harris said.

Illinois Legal Aid Online partners with groups — including the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation and the Chicago Bar Foundation — to address these issues by referring neighbors in need to their services.

The Equal Justice Foundation uses state funding to help families in crisis, as well as other people, according to its website. The Chicago Bar Foundation helps people in need through advocacy and pro bono work, among other efforts, said Executive Director Bob Glaves.

While it might be obvious to someone who is arrested that they need a lawyer, many residents might not realize legal experts can help them with other crises, Glaves said.

That’s where the groups are looking to step in and help neighbors.

Illinois Legal Aid Online provides information online, broken down by specialized subjects, so people can access information related to their legal needs. Its online programs, articles and more cover everything from money and debt to health, business and safety.

Illinois Legal Aid Online’s workers also intentionally use conversational language and easy forms so anyone can understand them, Ross said.

The organization also has programs — its African American Justice Initiative and Ayuda Legal Illinois — to provide focused help to Chicago’s Black and Latino residents.

New technological approaches that allow legal aid groups to more easily connect with people are especially useful for family law, consumer law and housing, where Leslie Corbett, executive director of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, said she sees the most need for additional support.

“Folks who are low-income and in crisis — their legal problem is not their only problem and might not even be the worst problem facing,” Corbett said. “So, to have a really well-oiled machine that connects programs to programs, and make sure that referrals are really hardy and robust, I think, is integral to the work.”

Ross said it’s still exciting and rewarding to be part of an effort to make the legal system more compassionate, equitable and accessible for everyday people.

“Our justice system is looked at by many outside of the U.S. as the kind of the gold standard, but when you look closer, there’s there’s an awful lot of problems with it,” Ross said. “The more we can move towards opening access, giving people opportunities for justice, especially those giving people who for whom the justice system wasn’t designed — opportunities for justice are critical to working towards a just society.

“We can’t do it with just adding more lawyers. We have to employ other solutions to the problem.”

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