Municipal Court Advice Desk Prepares and Empowers

Evictions. Contract disputes. Auto accidents. Debt collection. While some of these cases may seem small from the outside, they can be very high stakes for a low-income person going to court without an attorney to defend their housing, their financial security, or their business interests. These are the types of cases heard in the First Municipal Division at the Daley Center.

The Municipal Division is one of the busiest in the County and also has the highest number of people appearing in court without a lawyer. Fortunately, the Municipal Court Advice Desk is there to prepare and empower people without lawyers to represent themselves in court and to get legal representation in more complex cases.

In 2008, the CBF partnered with the Circuit Court of Cook County, CARPLS and the Chicago Legal Clinic to launch the expanded Municipal Court Advice Desk in the Daley Center. Since that time, CARPLS has provided legal advice and assistance to dozens of people each day, with the Chicago Legal Clinic providing legal representation to a limited number of people with more complex legal issues referred by CARPLS.  The Desk is funded through a model public private partnership: the CBF provides grant funding, which is matched dollar-for-dollar by Cook County to fully fund the program.  The CBF’s grant is made possible through generous individual donations to the annual Investing in Justice Campaign. The Circuit Court provides the space, desks, computers and meeting space for the lawyers and patrons.

The Desk has had a decade-long presence at the Daley Center, offering same day brief advice and document assistance to people without lawyers. Originally operating in a cramped space in the Clerk’s public filing office on the 6th floor of the Daley Center, the Advice Desk relocated to the Court’s Resource Center for People without Lawyers in 2014, which has allowed it to expand hours and staffing levels to serve even more people. Today, this Desk is one of a network of 13 court-based desks the CBF has helped to develop and support.

The Desk is now open daily from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, although clients often start lining up before 8:00 am given the high demand for services. Each year, the Desk serves over 4,000 people, most of whom would otherwise have gone through the process without any legal help, and provides over 7,500 legal consultations and services. Advice Desk attorneys meet one-on-one with patrons to learn about their legal problem, explain the court process, and prepare documents. Illinois JusticeCorps volunteers play a pivotal role in supporting the Desk by pre-screening and admitting court patrons and helping them to file their paperwork after they have met with an attorney.

Desk patrons with more complex cases or who are unable to represent themselves are referred to Chicago Legal Clinic for a pro bono or legal aid attorney to represent them in court. CARPLS attorneys at the Advice Desk also make referrals to other pro bono and legal aid programs, or to lawyer referral services, when appropriate. By combining their subject matter expertise with customized advice and referrals, the Desk staff help ensure that limited legal aid and pro bono resources are allocated strategically and effectively to help the courts operate more fairly and efficiently for everyone.