A free online service in Macoupin County, Ill., is making legal research easier for residents who can’t afford an attorney.

Run through IllinoisLegalAidOnline.org, the Macoupin County Legal Self-Help Center provides users with legal information and the appropriate forms needed for civil court cases. The service is present in courthouses and libraries statewide, but debuted in September at the Carlinville Public Library in Macoupin.

Here’s how it works:

Users can access the site from home, the library or wherever they have access to the Internet. Some common legal issues appear in a list, but if they don’t apply, a search button below the list lets a person enter in their own legal question or topic like in a search engine format, along with a zip code. The system then returns legal information based on where that user lives.

For example, if landlord-tenant law in Macoupin County differs from the law in Cook County, if a person entered a Macoupin County zip code, they’d get the information based only on the laws that apply in Macoupin County.

“Many people coming to the court system without a lawyer have only a vague idea bout their legal problem and the operations of a court system,” said Circuit Judge Kenneth Deihl of the Macoupin County Courthouse, in a statement. “We hope that the new center will lessen the anguish that many people feel when they have to come to court without a lawyer and provide them with useful information.”

In an interview with Government Technology, Janet Howard, director of Carlinville Public Library, said the service is a great thing for the community and is a nice way to collaborate with other public entities, in particular the Macoupin County Courthouse. She added that the library has people coming in five or six times a week looking for wills and other legal forms and information. But all the library had to help them was a book to copy from.

With the online service being location-specific, it provides a huge benefit for patrons so they are assured they are getting the correct information.

“The nice thing about it [is] it doesn’t have to be on one computer,” Howard said. “We have it on the desktop for all of our computers and we also have it on our website. They don’t have to even be here. They can do it from home, their laptop or they can do it from McDonalds.”

Long-Running Program

The free online legal aid service is new for Macoupin County, but the concept has been going on since 2007. It was established by a partnership between the Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice (ICEJ) and Illinois Legal Aid Online. The website was built and maintained by Illinois Legal Aid Online.

The ICEJ is a joint project of the Illinois State Bar Association and the Chicago Bar Association. The coalition's goal is to improve access to justice for lower-income Illinois residents. During the past six years, ICEJ’s emphasis has been on setting up legal self-help centers in every county in Illinois.

The online service is available in three different formats. In larger counties, the program is located in courthouses with a full-time staff member available to help users get the information they need.

In mid-size counties, the online free legal aid service is also set up in courthouses, but only staffed part-time. In smaller or rural counties, the program is set up in libraries and is not staffed. If a patron has a question on finding a topic or problem using the system, however, volunteer law students are available under a “Live Help” button on the site to assist.

Each county site hosting the service receives a grant to either pay for technology or assist in the cost of having a dedicated employee. The Carlinville Public Library received a $1,500 grant that was used for a new computer, printer, toner cartridges and paper.

Joe Dailing, executive director of the ICEJ, said the material on the site is written at a fifth- or sixth-grade level to make it easy for most users to understand. In addition, legal words are underlined in blue, so a person can click on them and get a plain language definition.

Spanish-speaking users can also use the system without fear of a language barrier. If a person enters Spanish words into the search, the program will detect that and “flip” to Spanish. Legal forms will be printed in English, however, for submission to the court. The user will also receive a copy of the forms in Spanish so they can follow along.

“This is such a benefit to the courts because there is a huge number of people without attorneys with no idea what they are doing and no idea about their legal problem,” Dailing said.

With Macoupin County now online, the system is present in 98 of Illinois’ 102 counties. Dailing said the other four counties should be added by the end of the year.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.