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The Legal Self-Help Center

Published: Monday, Nov. 12, 2012 4:03 p.m. CST • Updated: Monday, Nov. 12, 2012 4:11 p.m. CST

PRINCETON — Bureau County residents will now have an easier way to get free information about the court system.

On Friday, Bureau County Circuit Judge Marc Bernabei and Circuit Clerk Laurie Abrahams announced the opening of a new online Bureau County Legal Self-Help Center. The free online center will provide legal information for lower income residents who cannot find or afford an attorney to represent them in court, or who are looking for information of topics such as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, powers of attorney and marriage dissolutions.

Bernabei said the self-help center is a good thing for the community.

“Over the last few years, there has been what I would say is a rather dramatic increase in the number of people who are attempting to represent themselves in court,” he said.

Bernabei said it’s always best to have a lawyer, but this self-help center will help people who either can’t afford a lawyer, or who want to represent themselves. The center will give them information to help process what they’re trying to do and access to forms they might need. The center is generally for civil issues, such as family law questions of divorce, paternity, child support and custody issues.

The Princeton Public Library will serve as a public access location for the new online center, but Joseph Dailing of the Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice said the self-help center is available on any computer connected to the Internet.

Abrahams said the new center will minimize the number of people who come into her office looking for forms. This will allow them to find the information they need and the right forms.

Bernabei said the clerks in Abrahams’ office cannot give legal advice, but they are constantly asked for help.

“We have one clerk, she put a big sign on her desk that said, ‘I am not a lawyer; don’t ask for legal advice,’” Bernabei said. “People have to appreciate that.”

Stacie Colston Patterson with Illinois Legal aid Online said the goal of the center is to inform people as to how the law works.

“I think that our resources are invaluable even if you have an attorney,” she said. “It’s nice just to know what’s going to happen in court.”

Patterson said there is a gap in the number of people who can get legal services because of resource and budget concerns, and the goal of this service is to help fill that gap.

Bill Beneke, who is an attorney and also a Princeton Public Library Board member, said having an attorney is the ideal scenario, but many people, for a variety of reasons, won’t use one. This self-help center will minimize some problems for the local court system.

Beneke said it comes down to accessibility.

“The gap between rich and poor has increased,” he said. “If we can’t make resources equal, we should at least make an attempt to give equal access.”

Also attending the meeting was Carissa Faber of the Neponset Public Library. Faber said the library is the hub of the community in her small town, and she wanted residents in her town to be aware of the self-help center.

The Bureau County Legal Self-Help Center is available online at http://bureau.illinoislegalaid.org. Currently 100 of Illinois’ 102 counties have legal self-help centers.

Comment on this story at www.bcrnews.com.

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