A Network of Help for Considerable South Suburban Need

Campaign in Action
A blog series featuring the work you make possible through your support of the CBF Investing in Justice Campaign.

Ford Heights, located in southern Cook County, was once pegged as America’s poorest suburb. Three of its neighboring towns now claim the highest suburban poverty rates in Illinois: Harvey, Robbins, and Chicago Heights, all of which fall within the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court’s Sixth Municipal District in Markham.

Markham is a busy courthouse with a large unmet need, and its compact space enhances that challenge. In fact, it is also the only district in Cook County that has additional court call locations in 12 village halls and police departments. For people without a lawyer to guide them through the process, it can be easy to get lost in the shuffle.

Your support of the CBF Investing in Justice Campaign has helped build a network of court-based services in Markham that provide legal assistance to thousands in need for evictions, collections, and other matters.

To meet the needs of its low-income population, Markham’s network of court-based legal aid services is especially important for a community far removed from Chicago’s downtown resources. The CBF has assisted the courthouse through a close partnership with Presiding Judge Marjorie C. Laws, and through support of several legal aid organizations that provide legal services through help desks in the courthouse.

Judge Laws, presiding judge for the last seven years, says the caseload in criminal and civil cases is ever expanding. The felony court call can get as large as 500 cases a day and includes some of the most violent cases in the system. In the last two years, the courthouse has also faced an increase in civil cases, particularly in debt collection. There continues to be a heavy volume of landlord tenant cases as well.

The latter was the premise for the LAF Markham Eviction Advice Desk, which is directly supported by the CBF Investing in Justice Campaign. More than 5,000 eviction cases are filed in the Sixth Municipal District every year. Since 2012, the eviction desk has provided free legal assistance to low-income tenants facing eviction with onsite advice and brief services. Subsidized housing tenants and those facing eviction from foreclosed buildings are at times referred directly to LAF for full representation.

The desk served 938 people in the past year, and more than half of those clients were provided services beyond brief advice. LAF attorney Tim Hufman often enters into negotiations with landlords’ attorneys on behalf of indigent clients. He listens intently to each client’s story to formulate a thorough defense, particularly checking to see if the landlord had followed eviction rules or if the defendant was subject to unsafe living conditions. In most of these cases, Tim is able to make a significant difference in the outcome.

The other CBF-supported desks are the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services’ Markham Civil Law Advice Desk and the Cabrini Green Legal Aid Expungement Advice Desk. Judge Laws handles the expungement call and has already seen it grow four times larger due to changes in expungement and sealing laws, making the services of the desk more important than ever to people whose old criminal records are holding them back from employment or housing.

The desks work in conjunction with JusticeCorps volunteers, another CBF-supported resource that is in its second year of providing full time services at Markham. The volunteers serve as court docents for people without lawyers by helping them navigate the courthouse, connect with legal aid resources, and find and use helpful online resources. JusticeCorps volunteers also work directly with the advice desks, helping to increase their capacity to serve clients.

Judge Laws partnered with the CBF during her first year at Markham to expand the court’s legal aid offerings, and she has since seen a substantial change in the workings of the court as a consequence.

Many of the judges depend on the expertise of and rely heavily on the help desks, she said. I think the public has really taken advantage of the resources, and I’m very appreciative of the CBF’s assistance.