Hilda Bahena

Equal access to justice

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Catholic Charities Legal Assistance (CCLA) department began nearly two decades ago to help address the shortage of legal aid services for low-income women and men. Given the great complexities of the legal system, those who cannot afford legal help are prevented from having equal access to justice — a problem that can significantly affect the trajectory of their lives.

There is no shortage of stories that illustrate the importance of legal assistance: the mother and her children struggling to pay for rent and other necessities without child support; the senior who is facing the loss of savings because he was the victim of consumer fraud; the domestic violence survivor who needs an order of protection to keep her family safe; the family on the brink of homelessness because they are being unfairly evicted.

In each of these situations and countless others, having access to legal aid often means the difference between people being able to maintain stable lives or being devastated by situations that could have been avoided or improved.

After learning about the challenges faced by many who do not have the resources to hire an attorney, two dedicated Catholic Charities Board members, Jeanne Casey and Mary Fitzpatrick, were inspired to create CCLA. They recognized that access to legal assistance could dramatically change lives, and while there was a network of excellent legal aid organizations in the Chicago area, there was not enough assistance to meet the overwhelming need.

Initially, Jeanne and Mary launched the program as an attorney volunteer initiative. They recruited a group of incredibly dedicated volunteer attorneys who offered their expertise to support self-represented litigants.

In 2005, CCLA opened its doors for the first time after hiring its first staff member. Today, CCLA is a multi-service legal department with two office locations and eight staff members, including six staff attorneys, who represent clients in court in Cook and Lake counties.

Our devoted group of volunteer attorneys remain essential in our efforts to assist self-represented litigants. Each year we help thousands of clients and their families thanks to the commitment of our staff and the very generous gifts of time, skill and financial support from local attorneys and law firms.

It has been a privilege to guide CCLA’s vision and growth since December 2013. Just as Catholic Charities recognizes that legal issues stymie economic progress and stability for many families, I recognize that clients frequently have many other needs.

It has been rewarding to develop the legal assistance department’s programs and services within Catholic Charities, where people have access to a broad range of services that can address multiple needs simultaneously. Our holistic approach uses an empowerment-based legal services model that builds on the person’s strengths, presents legal and social service options that apply to their unique circumstances and empowers them to choose a path that works best for themselves and their families.

We are deeply grateful to our supporters and volunteers who have made it possible for CCLA to improve access to justice for those who would otherwise go without. Legal assistance has become a core part of Catholic Charities’ mission to help people live with dignity — walking with them on their journey to stability and well-being — one person, one heart at a time.

For more information on CCLA, call 312-948-6821


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