As a benefit for those unable to afford an attorney, the St. Clair County Circuit Clerk's office has recently trained six deputy clerks to answer questions about court forms, legal references, and online legal assistance for specific legal fields in the St. Clair County Law Library.
Circuit Clerk Brendan Kelley indicated this new service, provided in cooperation with Illinois Legal Aid and Southwestern Illinois College, begins March 2.
Kelly said there has been a steady increase in small claims, mortgage foreclosures, evictions and child support cases in recent months.
"It has always bothered me that we couldn't do more for people who don't have the money for a lawyer," he said in a statement. "Now that my clerks have been given the proper ethical training by Illinois Legal Aid attorneys, we can give some direction to those people, especially in cases that are resulting from the terrible economy."
Clerks will be available for general informational assistance on wills, guardianships, foreclosures, small claims, evictions, child support, family, orders of protection and expungements, Kelly said.
"These are areas which often generate the most questions from the public," he said.
Kelly also said that clerks are forbidden by law from giving legal counsel. However, he said, under state and local court rules, clerks can give legal information about forms, explain how a court process works, provide assistance with online resources, and explain where to file court papers.
He said the court's St. Clair County Legal Self Help Center is already staffed for legal aid questions Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to noon using a grant through the Law Library.
The Circuit Clerk's office will add an intern from the Southwestern Illinois College Paralegal Studies Program in the Legal Self Help Center in addition to five clerks available throughout the week to answer filing and form questions in specific areas.
From 3 to 4 p.m. clerks will be available to answer these questions on assigned days:
Tuesday: Wills and probate;
Thursday: Foreclosures, small claims and evictions; and
Friday: Child support and family.
On Wednesdays from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. a clerk will be available to answer questions about Orders of Protection. In addition, all clerks in the Circuit Clerk's office and courtrooms will now be able to direct pro se parties to the legal help center.
Kelly said the public will benefit from this effort in two ways: improved service and saving taxpayer resources by avoiding unnecessary court appearances.
He said, for example, many people are not eligible for an expungement, but "many people still file the paperwork and pay the fee anyway only to be turned down by the court, wasting their time and money, the court's time and money, and the tax-payers' time and money."
Kelly said the goal of this initiative is to help people as well as make the court more economical by providing people accurate information ahead of time.
"Even if a lower income person ultimately does not prevail in a case like a foreclosure, at least they can know what their real options are and the courtroom process can move more efficiently," he said.
"Illinois Legal Aid exists to help people who can't get attorneys. The Circuit Clerk's Office is the procedural gateway to the justice system. It makes perfect sense to coordinate our efforts," he said.
Kelly said that as far as he knows, "we are going to be the only Circuit Clerk's office in Illinois with this kind of service for people in these tough situations."
Those wishing to access Illinois Legal Aid resources online can go to http://stclair.illinoislegalaid.org/.