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Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013 12:01 am

Non-billable hours

Diocese plans free legal clinic

Bishop Thomas Paprocki

 

The Diocese of Springfield in Illinois hopes to start offering free legal services to the poor within six weeks, Bishop Thomas Paprocki announced Monday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

It is a bit of back to the future for Paprocki, an attorney himself who co-founded the Chicago Legal Clinic after passing the bar in 1981. He still volunteers as president of the nonprofit clinic in the Windy City that says it has helped more than 250,000 poor people who couldn’t afford to pay for legal help.

“Ever since I got here,” Paprocki answered when asked how long he’s wanted to start a similar clinic in the Springfield diocese.

Paprocki made the announcement following Springfield’s second annual Red Mass, held each fall for attorneys, judges, law students and government officials. No one thanked the Lord for ketchup or Warren Buffet, but cash from condiments and the billionaire investor has enabled Paprocki’s vision.

While Paprocki said that he has always wanted to start a clinic, there was no money until Berkshire Hathaway acquired H.J. Heinz last June and took the company private. Stockholders were paid $72.50 per share, $12 per share above the stock price the day before the $28 billion deal was announced. The diocese ended up with $1.5 million thanks to shares it received after the demise of Arthur Robinson, who lived in the diocese and died in the 1980s.

Diocese officials said that Robinson attached one stipulation to his gift: Proceeds from the stock must be used to benefit the poor, and the gift proved most generous as the value of the stock more than tripled between 1990 and the day the diocese cashed in, far outstripping the rate of inflation.

The gift, however, won’t be enough to sustain Paprocki’s vision, and so the bishop is asking for another $1.5 million in donations to establish an endowment out of which the salary for a clinic coordinator, who will likely be a lawyer, and operating expenses will be paid.

“The impact of this program will depend greatly on our partnerships with the legal communities of the diocese and the generosity of our donors,” Paprocki told a luncheon audience. “We need people to stand with us in this noble cause of giving voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless.”

Lawyers will be expected to work for free, although Paprocki said that some hours might end up being billable if the clinic needs specialized help that can be secured in no other way.

The clinic will be managed by Catholic Charities and will be housed at existing offices, so expenses should be minimal, Paprocki said.

More than 30,000 lawyers in Illinois last year provided more than 2.1 million hours of free legal help, according to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, and another $16 million was donated to fund legal services for the poor. Paprocki said his goal is to augment what already exists rather than have lawyers who are already performing pro bono work provide the same services under the auspices of the new clinic that will be called Caritas Legal Services. Caritas is a Latin word that means “charity.”

Given that the law mandates free legal help for indigent people charged with crimes, the clinic will not work on criminal cases, Paprocki said. There is a tremendous need for help in such areas as family law, landlord-tenant relations, disability claims, foreclosures, debt relief, child support and immigration law, he said.

“This program goes to the heart of preserving human dignity and empowering people to gain control of their lives again,” Paprocki said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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