SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — An Illinois diocese is launching a volunteer legal services program for the poor in need of legal counsel for civil matters, its bishop announced.
“I have seen firsthand how civil legal aid can be a lifeline that enables families to save their home from foreclosure or eviction, recover back wages from an employer, secure disability benefits or provide protection in domestic-violence situations,” said Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield to the State Journal-Register, a local newspaper.
“This program goes to the heart of preserving human dignity and empowering people to gain control of their lives again.”
The new program, called Caritas Legal Services, will link a panel of volunteer lawyers with persons in need across the diocese to provide free assistance for civil matters to those who cannot afford it.
The launch of the program was announced at the diocese's annual Red Mass for the members of its Catholic Lawyers Guild on Oct. 14 in Springfield. The new program is backed by the support of a number of Catholic and non-Catholic attorneys, as well as $1.5 million in seed money donated to the diocese.
Bishop Paprocki, who is a lawyer himself, explained that the new program will not “dump a bunch of cases” on each lawyer who volunteers, but will limit the volunteer workload to around two cases per year.
The bishop added that he expected the program to be self-supporting through the investment of donations in its Lex Cordis (“law of the heart”) Endowment.
The program will not provide services to criminal cases, instead “giving a voice to the voiceless and empowering the powerless” who need legal help in navigating custody, disability, adoption, immigration, rent, eviction, domestic violence and other civil laws.
The bishop explained to the State Journal-Register that the diocese is creating this program because it “is fundamentally unfair and unjust to deprive the poor of the legal protection for their lives that wealthy persons enjoy.”
The program will work alongside other legal services to help the poor in the area gain access to free legal aid. Bishop Paprocki stressed that Caritas Legal Services will not work against or “take volunteer attorneys away” from existing legal-aid organizations, such as the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, but instead will work with them.
He said, “It has been my experience that the legal needs of the poor are so great you can never have enough services.”