Legal aid goes online in Woodford

Nick Vlahos

Legal assistance for low-income residents of Woodford County is as close as their personal computers. Or, absent those, their local library.

The Woodford County Legal Self-Help Center came online last week. The website is designed to provide information and answers to questions about simple, civil legal issues.

“Across the state, there are a lot of people coming into court who can’t afford an attorney,” said Joseph Dailing, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice. “They have to represent themselves in civil matters and don’t have any real sense of how the court works.

“The goal is to give people a place where they can go without any cost to access information and prepare for court. This way it’s less frustrating for themselves and everybody else.”

The self-help center website features a video message from Elizabeth Robb, chief judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit, of which Woodford County is part.

Information about domestic-violence issues, landlord-tenant relations and child-custody situations, among other things, also is included. So are tips on who’s who in the courtroom and how the public should dress for court appearances.

“There’s nothing complex in here. It’s aimed at lower-income people,” Dailing said. “If you’ve got assets, you really should talk to an attorney.”

Illinois Legal Aid Online developed the website accessible from any computer, but Dailing’s group wanted to ensure coverage for those unable to afford a connection to cyberspace. Thus, the libraries’ role.

The El Paso Public Library, the Eureka Public Library and the six branches of the Illinois Prairie District Public Library are public access points for the self-help center. The Illinois Prairie District has branches in Benson, Germantown Hills, Metamora, Roanoke, Spring Bay and Washburn.

“This is exactly what libraries do - provide information without interpreting it,” said Grant Fredericksen, the Illinois Prairie District director. “You can provide information, but you can’t provide advice.”

Funding is granted by the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, which in turn receives money from the state Legislature.

Woodford County is the latest addition to a statewide network that began in 2007 and includes Peoria and Tazewell counties. There are 82 Illinois counties connected, and the remaining 20 are expected to join them by the end of the year, according to Dailing.

“In the more rural counties, where there are fewer attorneys more widely dispersed, this is going to be the only resource,” he said.

For more information about the Woodford County Legal Self-Help Center, visit http://woodford.illinoislegalaid.org.