Maria Nanos sees firsthand what happens when families can’t afford legal services or navigate the bureaucracy of the court system. As chief executive officer of Greenlight Family Services, their work centers on helping families resolve legal concerns around adoption and guardianship, and ninety-five percent of their clients are low-income.
One recent case concerned a single mother and her daughter. Both were living with the daughter’s grandmother as a family unit when, Nanos said, “the birth mother got this horrible cancer and so the family called [Greenlight] and said, ‘we want to do a guardianship plan if mom cannot make it.’” The family later got good news that the mother would likely survive her cancer and they ultimately did not pursue the guardianship plan. So when things took a turn for the worse, and the mother did pass away, the child was left in the father’s custody, which the grandmother told Greenlight was not what the mother had wanted.
“So now we have a custody battle, basically, where my attorneys are saying we are not going to win this case because the dad has every right to his daughter but it becomes ‘best interest,’” Nanos said. “So it’s a contested case—nobody will touch those kinds of cases.”
According to Nanos, contested cases, or those in which litigants are on opposite sides of issues such as asset distribution, child support, or a variety of other issues common in family law, are rarely taken as pro-bono cases or by low-cost agencies such as Legal Aid and Chicago Volunteer legal Services (CVLS). That’s because “it’s a lot more time and money for the attorney,” she explained.
In family law, a divorce is one of the more common forms of a contested case. In Cook County, there were 63,573 divorces and annulments between 2010 and 2016, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The sticker price for a divorce in Illinois is between $11,000 and $14,000. According to the 2016 Justice Gap Survey, eighty-six percent of low-income Americans who had civil legal problems reported that they either had no or inadequate legal services. As a result, some of these families utilize free and low-cost services such as Legal Aid Chicago and Chicago Volunteer Legal Services (CVLS). But while these services help guide low-income families, they remain limited in what cases they take.
Kathleen Walsh, a family law attorney in Bridgeport, said that she receives perhaps ten calls a month requesting help from families that cannot afford her services, so she gives them information over the phone.
University of Chicago student Eamonn Keenan saw a similar problem when he worked for the Greater Chicago Legal Clinic (GCLC) during the summer of 2019, which led Keenan to create SAEF (Support, Advocacy, Education for Families) Legal Aid, a nonprofit that helps match people in need of legal help with appropriate services and resources. Clients fill out a survey about the nature of their legal needs online, and based on their responses, are presented with affordable options for legal representation. (SAEF Legal Aid is currently in the beta testing stage and is looking for people to test their program; information is available on their website.)
“The problem was that most of the litigants that were coming to [GCLC] were either highly or entirely unfamiliar with the legal nature of their personal situation, which made it difficult for them to articulate…what they actually need help with from our attorneys,” Keenan said.
Often it was discovered that the litigant did not have the documentation needed for assistance or the legal issue fell outside the realm of GCLC’s services, which include attorney assistance, advice, and support around divorce, domestic violence, child support, and other family law issues. After his summer experience, Keenan researched the issue of legal education and accessibility to find that many low-cost resources don’t diagnose what the client’s legal situation is or ascertain if their problem can even be solved in the court system.
Once a client completes SAEF Legal Aid’s survey, they are directed to a legal service best suited for their needs, whether it be a pro-bono attorney or another organization like CVLS or GCLC. This provides a next step and contact, instead of leaving the litigant to call countless services trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together on their own.
But finances are just a small piece of the puzzle regarding legal disparities in Illinois and the United States as a whole. Issues such as access to technology, limited education on legal issues, and language barriers are other legal accessibility concerns, according to Walsh.
“They’ve stopped a lot of community outreach in a lot of [low-income] communities [so] there are not services available if they need it,” Nanos said. “Work, housing, education—I think that’s where the rubber meets the road. If you have those things, you’re pretty set. You’re going to have bumps, everybody does.”
Mitzi Ramos, an adjunct professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University and lecturer at DePaul University, said such community education programs could be disappearing for a variety of causes, but emphasizes that each type of organization, private or public, will have a different reason.
“If these community education programs were created by local organizations, then one might assume that they are disappearing because the organizations are dealing with a lack of resources (i.e. time, money, volunteers),” Ramos wrote in an email to the Weekly. “However, if the community education programs are spearheaded by the city, one might assume that city officials are not prioritizing the needs of these communities and opting to invest city funding in other areas.”
Walsh believes the court system is working toward limiting disparities in access to legal services. But the fundamental problem remains. “You have to be very poor or very rich,” Nanos said. “If you’re very rich you can pay for [legal services]; if you’re very poor, a lot of the fees are waived”—but not the attorney fees.
Nanos and her colleagues at Greenlight Family Services have adopted a sliding-scale payment option to allow families that cannot afford legal services, but make enough money that their legal fees aren’t waived—the chance to have a fair fight in the courtroom without breaking the bank.
However, while the sliding scale payment model will help, Ramos said that it will not fix the overarching problem of poverty.
“While there is nothing wrong with the sliding payment scale to help make [services] accessible to low-income residents, what we really need is a solution to income inequality in this country,” Ramos wrote. “We need to bring employment opportunities into low-income communities so that individuals not only have access to health care services, but so that they have the economic means to move up the socioeconomic ladder.”
When it comes down to it, finances make it difficult for organizations such as Greenlight to provide free representation to everyone, making some believe there need for a large-scale, systemic change.
In the last couple of years, the circuit court system has been simplifying the process by putting standardized forms in place that make it less complicated for people to represent themselves. The forms were developed with input from legal experts outside the circuit court system, such as Margaret Duval, executive director at Ascend Justice, an organization that represents gender-based violence survivors at no cost.
“The court has been creating standardized forms so that people are not drafting their own pleadings, that they can walk through the forms and they guide you through it so that you can answer the questions and file it yourself without an attorney,” Duval said.
She said that not all judges and clerks know how much assistance and education they can give to low-income families. But she also said she believes that Iris Martinez, the newly-elected Cook County Circuit Court clerk, will bring improvements.
“Many judges are artificially constrained in the assistance that they give to unrepresented or self-represented litigants,” said Duval. “They feel that providing them with any type of assistance is unethical and inappropriate, [when actually], judges and the clerks are able to provide some legal information.”
According to Duval, the traffic of a particular courtroom, or simply a judge’s temperament, can make a courtroom inaccessible and unfriendly for a low-income, self-represented litigant. She added that not all judges and courtrooms have this culture and there are some courtrooms that are welcoming and friendly to low-income, self-represented litigants.
“I think part of it though is not so much a lack of information but a cultural issue,” Duval continued. “To have presiding judges and the leadership from the chief judge to share that this should be the culture of all the courtrooms in Cook County, that would go a long way.”
Corey Schmidt is a DePaul University student and an associate editor of 14 East Magazine. He last wrote about Illinois redistricting reform.