The Illinois State Government’s Conduit for Access to Justice

Equal justice is a basic right that is fundamental to democracy in this State, and the integrity of this State and this State’s justice system depends on protecting and enforcing the rights of all people.

That is the opening paragraph for the Illinois Equal Justice Act, which the Illinois General Assembly passed in 1999 with broad bipartisan support, creating the first dedicated vehicle for state government support of legal aid and related access to justice initiatives.

Prior to the Act, there was no dedicated state funding for legal aid in Illinois despite equal access to justice being such a fundamental underpinning of our state and country. The lack of state funding helped perpetuate a huge shortage in the availability of pro bono and legal aid services for low-income and disadvantaged Illinoisans. The Act was the culmination of an eight-year advocacy effort, and the CBF played a lead role in getting that effort over the finish line.

Working with The Chicago Bar Association, the Illinois State Bar Association, and other partners, the CBF helped build the case for state support through a collaborative education and advocacy initiative called the Illinois Equal Justice Project. That successful initiative ultimately inspired the name for both the Act and the vehicle the new legislation created to carry out its purposes, the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation (IEJF). Along with funding traditional legal aid representation, the Act broke new ground in designating funding for a continuum of legal services that also includes legal information and self-help services, legal aid hotlines, and mediation.

Once the Act had passed, the CBF also played a lead role in advocating for the initial funding for IEJF and served as the incubator for the new foundation as it started out.

Today, IEJF is an independent, major player in the state’s access to justice arena and is one of the core funders of legal aid in the state, along with the Lawyers Trust Fund and CBF. Tens of thousands of Illinoisans each year benefit from services made possible through IEJF. In addition, IEJF now serves as the hub for the new Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network and occasionally distributes state funding that arises from special circumstances.

The state still has a long way to go before its funding is enough to fulfill its proper role, and Illinois continues to lag far behind what other large states provide for legal aid. However, the broad bipartisan support for equal access to justice at all levels of state government sets the stage for Illinois to continue making strides towards one day protecting and enforcing the rights of all people.”