ST. CHARLES TOWNSHIP – Most mornings, the Kane County Law Library and Self Help Legal Center bustles with lawyers and the public using the computers, law books and publications to do legal research.
Among them on a recent day was Huntley lawyer Jeff Rifken, tucked into an alcove and working on his laptop computer. Now semi-retired, Rifken said he does mediations and guardian ad litem work out of his house – and at the law library.
“For years, forever, it’s been probably the most user-friendly law library in four counties,” Rifken said. “You can do the electronic research here very easily. I’ve been coming down here probably 20 to 25 years, and it’s been quicker to do it on their computers than it is to do it with the books out of the bookshelves.”
The law library, which has a staff of three, is on the second floor of the Kane County Judicial Center at 37W77 W. Route 38 in St. Charles Township.
Not only does the law library have law books, publications, public access Internet terminals and conference rooms, it also loans out about a third of its law books, as well a small lending library of circulating fiction and nonfiction books, and it hosts legal assistance programs for the public, Executive Director Hallé Cox said.
The law library also has extended hours to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, a staff notary public, and hosts Lawyer in the Library events in which lawyers volunteer to meet with people who otherwise cannot afford legal assistance. The library has a Facebook page.
Rifken said he just settled a mediation case and was using the law library’s facilities for all of the next steps.
“I’m now preparing the mediation report. I’ll email it to myself. I’ll go over to their computers; I’ll download it; I’ll print it. I’ll give it to the judge – and then I’ll go home,” Rifken said. “And I’m not the only [one] that does it. The bar uses this library a lot. The staff is very good. They’re very nice people, and they know what they’re doing.”
The law library’s popularity is increasing among members of the public. According to its statistics, 2,889 people were assisted from December 2013 to June 2014, and 3,395 were assisted from December 2014 to June 2015.
“Those are the people that we directly assist,” Cox said. “These are not the people who come in and already know how to use our facilities and already know what they are looking for themselves.”
With a budget of just less than $300,000, the library is almost entirely funded by a civil filing fee of $19 – and it is struggling because civil filings are decreasing, Cox said. Criminal complaints also have filing fees, but they are not directed to support the law library, she said.
There were 22,830 civil filings in 2012, and that was down to 15,935 in 2014, Cox said.
A $2 civil filing rate increase would bring in almost an additional month’s revenue of just less than $25,000, she said.
“Right now we are statutorily capped at $21 per civil filing. I can ask [the County Board] to raise it to $21,” Cox said. “I am going to soon, within the next couple months, because we are in budgeting season.”
In recent years, the bulk of civil filings were foreclosures, but now that has slowed down, she said.
“Also, just the economy – people can’t afford to file,” Cox said. “When the economy is really bad – people need divorces, they need help with rent and stuff like that – but they cannot afford to actually file a lawsuit, unfortunately. Or file small claims. People lose money to contractors, and they can’t afford to try to recoup that.”
The library also creates some of its own revenue streams, such as overdue fines for its loaned-out books, photocopy costs, invoicing fees, computer printout fees and faxing fees, she said.
But the library’s costs are increasing, as well. Records show the “Illinois Compiled Statutes Annotated” database cost $4,658 in 2012, but increased by 64 percent in 2014 to $7,172. “Illinois Jurisprudence” went from $811 in 2012 to $1,368 in 2014, a 59 percent increase.
“ ‘The Illinois Compiled Statutes Annotated’ – which are the laws for Illinois – almost doubled,” Cox said. “And my revenue is not doubling. The same thing is happening with 10 percent, 12 percent and 15 percent [increases] on the databases, as well. But I’ve been able to coordinate multi-year contracts that lock in prices at a lower rate.”
Cox said if law libraries sought legislative support for more revenue, she was not sure what a new funding mechanism would be – only that something has to be done.
“We can’t just keep increasing filing fees for the rest of our lives,” Cox said.
The County Board could provide the law library with an appropriation. But Cox said she would not ask for it because she knows the county doesn’t have it – because other county departments also get revenue through the civil filings – putting them all in the same boat of getting less money.
“They could [support the law library], if they had funding themselves,” Cox said. “But that is not a route I am willing to take at this point. ... So I do not foresee me asking for general revenue funds at this point. I would not do that unless it became absolutely vital.”
Fast facts about the Kane County Law Library & Self Help Legal Center:
• Hosts interns from local community colleges and helps students gain community service hours
• Offers a neutral meeting space for mediations
• Offers a secure private place for public and legal aid organizations to use specialized software to complete emergency orders of protection
• Offers an online computer catalog
• Assists in finding local county ordinances, resolutions and local court rules
• Aids local libraries, so taxes are not spent on duplicate legal resources
• Supports local and national mock trial competitions
• Will make change for bus and circuit clerk payments
• Books in good condition may be donated for its lending library or book sale