This May, Peoria County is opening an online legal self-help center to assist the increasing number of individuals in our area who represent themselves in court without attorneys. These individuals will now be able to access legal information and court documents for many civil legal problems with the assistance of a trained navigator in the law library at the Peoria County Courthouse.
Peoria County is one of the first of a growing number of Illinois court systems that have established legal self-help centers in the past two years, with the assistance of Illinois Legal Aid Online and the Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice, both nonprofit organizations. The former manages and maintains the underlying database of legal information, while the latter is funding the self-help center’s first two years of operation with a $20,000 grant. The Peoria County Board expects to provide the minimal funding required to maintain the center once the grant is exhausted.
The legal self-help center was established to provide legal information, legal forms and educational videos on general court procedures for lower income people unable to secure legal representation. Agencies such as Prairie State Legal Services may not have sufficient staff to meet the needs of financially qualified individuals seeking legal representation, and others who find themselves above income requirements for such agencies may still lack adequate funds to retain an attorney. Without the current and accurate information available at legal self-help centers, these individuals are at a serious disadvantage in court and often leave confused and frustrated.
Anyone with internet access can visit the legal self-help center from any location at peoria.illinoislegalaid.org. For those who desire assistance, a trained navigator is available at the county law library in the courthouse. Many public librarians in Peoria County have also been trained to assist patrons with the self-help center. While the center is continually evaluated and updated by Illinois attorneys, it does not offer legal advice, and court documents still need to be filed at the courthouse.
Internet-based legal self-help centers were opened in eight Illinois counties last year, with eight more—including Peoria County’s—expected to open in 2008. In addition to the two aforementioned nonprofits, the Peoria County Legal Self-help Center is the result of a collaboration of the Circuit Court, Circuit Clerk’s Office, County Board, Prairie State Legal Services, Illinois Central College, Peoria County Bar Association, Peoria Public Library, Alpha Park Public Library, The Center for Prevention of Abuse and Caterpillar Inc.
The new self-help center ensures that lower income individuals with legal problems have meaningful access to Peoria County’s court system, and it strengthens our partnership with the citizens we serve. While the center is not a substitute for legal representation, it does provide basic information to reduce much of the fear and frustration often experienced by individuals who must represent themselves. IBI