By CARPLS Legal Aid
The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched our community beyond the already devastating health effects. As of this writing, nearly 9,000 Illinoisans have lost their lives and over 20,000 have been hospitalized. There have been terrible socioeconomic implications:
- 3 million Illinoisans are unemployed;
- An estimated 32% didn’t pay for their housing last month, including 24 million US renters that cannot pay their rent;
- 35,000 debt collection cases have been filed in Cook County since August;
- Divorce is up 34% over last year;
- Domestic violence is up 20%
But many of the legal implications of the pandemic—such as evictions, collections, and divorces—have yet to fully materialize.
CARPLS and the legal aid community in Chicago and across Illinois are working together to ease some of the legal fallout about to take place for vulnerable members of the community.
There are 450 Legal Aid attorneys in Illinois for 13 million Illinoisans, or 31.6% living in near poverty. In most civil cases, people represent themselves because there is generally no right to legal counsel in civil matters, such as guardianship, divorce, eviction, foreclosure, bankruptcy, debt collecting, car repossession or impoundment, domestic violence, employment issues, tax proceedings and education discipline, among others.
The legal aid system is designed to help those who are most in need. However, given the current pandemic, the need has greatly expanded. Often the resources are so limited because of the timing of someone’s case, where they live, or just a lack of community resources to help them.
Legal aid representation in Illinois has grown and improved over the years, but the legal aid community often finds itself is struggling in trying to address needs across different communities. The mortgage foreclosure crisis and the recession of 2008 was a foreshadowing for the tsunami of legal issues we are expecting.
With 27 years of experience, CARPLS’ strength lies in serving as a hub and central referral network for our legal aid partners and a “coach” for people representing themselves in court. We believe that no one should face their legal issue alone.
CARPLS is the frontline legal aid hotline for the county, the statewide veterans/military, civil legal aid hotline for the IL-AFLAN network, and is developing other entry points for statewide programs and the Cook County Court.
So how is CARPLS expanding its services to meet the growing need for free legal help during the pandemic?
1. CARPLS continues to provide uninterrupted hotline services to people in need.
2. Benny the Unemployment Chat Bot
In early September, CARPLS launched a statewide unemployment benefits virtual assistant/chatbot called “Benny.” With support from The Lawyers’ Trust Fund of Illinois, Benny can:
- Help people get on the right path to applying for unemployment benefits;
- Help identify why they might be having problems getting the benefits they need;
- Help them navigate the unemployment hearing and appeals process.
3. Cannabis Expungement Project
Beginning in October 2020, CARPLS will implement its new statewide online web portal to assist up to 780,000 Illinois residents to begin the process of expunging their cannabis arrests and court cases, under the new Illinois statute that decriminalized cannabis use.
CARPLS’ legal team will review registrants’ criminal records to determine if a criminal record is eligible for expungement under the cannabis statute, whether there is legal aid help for them to file a petition to expunge, or whether they will need to file their own expungement petition pro se. The program is designed based on the success of the three-year old statewide veteran’s civil legal program called IL-ALFAN.
Hundreds of thousands of people adversely affected by past minor cannabis charges will move forward with their lives, to better employment, housing and other opportunities.
4. COVID Response Effort
CARPLS is also a thought leader in planning and anticipating COVID-19 related legal issues that will affect people in court. We hope to provide more resources that will greatly help users to navigate the new landscape. In the meantime, we are continuing to update our own CARPLS COVID-19 Resource Page weekly.
CARPLS has provided everyday justice to almost 1 million everyday people since our founding in 1993. We find that during a crisis, the legal aid community comes together to meet people where they are at, so they can move their lives forward. We will continue working to change our community for the better, one legal problem at a time.