“Equal justice for all” is one of the United States’ most proudly proclaimed principles, embellished on courthouse entrances and regularly cited in constitutional decisions. The Illinois Constitution also contains a strong commitment to equal and unimpeded access to our legal system for all of our citizens: “Every person shall find a certain remedy in the laws for all injuries and wrongs which he receives to his person, privacy, property or reputation. He shall obtain justice by law, freely, completely and promptly.” Notwithstanding these constitutional principles, a large number of people with urgent and important issues at stake—such as the custody of a child, the preservation of one’s home, access to health care, or the loss of a job—have found themselves without legal assistance to help them with their legal problems. For these people, equal access to justice is not yet a reality. Access to counsel is not just a convenience that makes the litigation process more efficient. Legal representation can dramatically affect the outcome of a case. Lawyers advise clients about substantive rights, claims, or defenses that they may not know they have. Lawyers help clients navigate their way through complex laws and procedures that govern the judicial system, which can be confusing even to those with formal education and economic means. Lawyers also make a difference as counselors in situations far removed outside of the courtroom. They provide advice, resolve problems before they turn into court cases, advocate for laws and policies that better serve the interests of their clients, and provide transactional services such as drafting a will or advanced medical directive so that end-of-life wishes will be respected. Every day, lawyers perform valuable services for individuals with the resources to pay for them. But legal needs are not limited to those with resources. Low-income residents need and deserve legal assistance and representation as well. The consequences of unaddressed civil legal problems can be devastating and spill over into other aspects of life. A person who has been evicted from his or her home, for example, may also have difficulty maintaining employment and keeping children in school. A person unable to remain in this country due to immigration problems may have to leave behind a spouse and children or have to uproot them. For a person with limited resources, losing disability benefits could lead to homelessness. And, if unable to secure legal protection from an abusive relationship, a mother may have to flee her job and her home, subjecting her children to financial insecurity and instability. This Article details several new projects and programs aimed at improving access to justice for all Chicagoans, particularly during this challenging economic climate. It is important to note that the Chicago Bar Foundation is taking a system wide approach to address these needs that involves direct legal services, training and support for legal aid and pro bono organizations, advocacy for increased government support and funding for such efforts and assistance for self-represented litigants. One purpose of this Article is to detail the Chicago legal community’s innovations to improve access to justice, with the hope that many of these innovations will be adapted for use in other jurisdictions.

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