February 02, 2011

Legal clinic wins grant to continue helping seniors

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The Southern Illinois University School of Law Legal Clinic recently received a $40,000 grant to continue its work assisting senior citizens.

The award from the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois will support the clinic’s Legal Services to Older Persons Program, said John F. Erbes, interim clinic director and visiting assistant professor of law.

The grant “is critical funding for the legal clinic,” Erbes said. “We would certainly be restricted in what we can do, how many clients we could represent, and the area we cover if we didn’t have that funding.”

The clinic program provides civil legal representation to residents 60 and older, with services directed toward the most needy and vulnerable, Erbes said. Residents in Alexander, Franklin, Gallatin, Hardin, Jackson, Johnson, Massac, Perry, Pope, Pulaski, Saline, Union and Williamson counties are eligible.

The number of cases the clinic handles increased from approximately 400 annually for several years to more than 600 last year, Erbes said.

“We are grateful for the continued financial support from the Lawyer's Trust Fund,” said Cynthia L. Fountaine, dean of the SIU School of Law. “Especially in this difficult financial climate, we are pleased that they recognize the value of the services our faculty and students provide. Their support allows the Clinic to help hundreds of clients each year, while also opening the eyes of law students to the needs of a segment of our community that they might otherwise never see.”

The grant will offset overhead costs and support paid law student workers who assist program attorneys, Erbes said. Up to 20 law students work with one of three program attorneys each semester. The clinic’s services include drafting of simple wills and powers of attorneys, family law matters, housing, real estate and guardianship issues, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and consumer issues.

The clinic also accepts cases from agencies that provide services to senior citizens, including area elder abuse and case management programs. Hospitals and attending social work staff also refer cases.

Mark Marquardt, deputy director for the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, notes the not-for-profit organization has provided funds to the legal clinic since 1985. The organization’s primary funding source comes from interest that lawyers earn from nominal or short-term client deposits in their pooled trusts accounts. Lawyers may not benefit from property they hold in trust for their clients, Marquardt said.

The law school’s legal clinic “is a very effective way to make sure that vulnerable people in the southern part of the state have access to legal protection,” he said. “We know the clinic works with older people who are at times at risk of physical abuse and financial exploitation and often times are targeted by people for scams. Without the clinic’s work, many, if not most of these people would not have any way to use the law to protect themselves.”

The grant is from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. Erbes said he is pleased the legal clinic received the same funding level as last year, especially in light of the fact that due to the downturn in the economy, the Lawyer's Trust Fund has had to cut or not renew some of its grants.

“I think it speaks to the high regard that Lawyer’s Trust Fund has for our program that we were able to receive the same amount this year,” he said.

The total grants awarded to legal aid programs in fiscal year 2011 total just over $8 million; since 1983, the amount of grants exceeds $100 million.

Marquardt said the organization also appreciates that the law school “sees itself as providing a public service in addition to educating students. We are very happy to support that public service component.”

Erbes said the clinic also receives support through a federal grant through the Egyptian Area Agency on Aging. Additional information on legal services available to older persons is available at www.law.siu.edu/clinic_services/elderpublic2.asp.