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Pro bono work encouraged in struggling economy

Published: Thursday, April 30, 2009 10:51 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, May 1, 2009 2:44 p.m. CDT
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H. Rick Bamman - hbamman@kcchronicle.com Attorney Krista Carls drafts a marital settlement agreement for a pro-bono case in the Kane County Judicial Center law library. In this economy, the need for pro bono work rising. Some do not qualify for legal aid but can not afford an attorney. To address the issue, the 16th Judicial Circuit has come up with a new pro bono "philosophy."

The Kane County legal community is responding to the growing economic crisis by reminding those that need legal help but can’t afford it that there are options available.

With the help of the Kane County Bar Association, the 16th Judicial Circuit has come up with a new “pro bono philosophy.”

The statement says the declining economy has created an increase in residents that need legal representation but don’t have the funds to pay for it. It further states that pro bono work is essential to ensure judicial access to everyone, regardless of financial standing.

But some say that although the philosophy is a positive step, the sentiment already is present in the county’s legal community.

St. Charles attorney Sandra Byrd said she’s always felt it was her duty to offer pro bono services.

“I do it because I think it’s very important to give back to the community,” she said. “I believe it’s the right thing to do.”

Byrd, who used to be a public defender, estimates she provides 10 to 15 hours of pro bono services each month, spanning a variety of cases.

She said attorneys in Kane County who offer pro bono services don’t do it to receive recognition, but rather to make sure there aren’t people who “fall through the cracks.”

Those people are precisely why pro bono work is important, said Halle Cox, director of the Kane County Library and Self-Help Legal Center.

Cox said she sees a growing number of people who don’t meet the income guidelines to receive legal aid services at places like Prairie State Legal Services but also can’t afford a private attorney’s retainer fee and hourly rates.

Plus, if one side of a legal battle is receiving free representation from Prairie State, the opposing side cannot receive their representation or it would be a conflict of interest, Cox added.

“We hope to encourage attorneys to take on more pro bono cases,” she said. “We’re seeing a greater number of the working poor [needing attorneys]. They make too much money [to meet poverty guidelines], but they don’t make enough for a retainer.”

Chief Judge Keith Brown said it’s important to make sure everyone has the chance at legal representation not only for fairness but also to keep cases moving smoothly through the court system.

Those who try to represent themselves – which everyone has the right to do – could cause delays in the process because they’re not familiar with the law, he said.

Brown helped put together the philosophy statement, which will be unveiled during an event this afternoon at the law library inside the Kane County Judicial Center.

Aurora attorney Patrick Kinnally also helped Brown, the bar association, and others in the judicial circuit, which includes Kane, DeKalb and Kendall counties, put together the philosophy statement.

Kinnally said he offers about 100 hours of pro bono work each month.

“Performing pro bono work is part of what we are about as lawyers,” Kinnally said. “In the oath we take when we become lawyers, we recognize it being part of our professional obligation. It’s not required ... but I think any lawyer will tell you that they are helping others.”

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