NIU Law Creates COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic Amid Crises

On May 18, 2020, NIU Law will launch a COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic as a result of the current crisis.  The elimination of face-to-face contact has made it extremely difficult for people to get help. The Clinic will fill the need for legal advice in the communities that the College of Law’s clinics currently serve, which has only grown during the pandemic.

“We have had to adjust to a new legal landscape in a matter of weeks,” said Interim Dean Laurel Rigertas.  “Because we had to suspend our normal clinic courses and programs for the summer, we saw the COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic as a way to offer students the opportunity to engage in meaningful legal work, in a safe environment, during extraordinary circumstances and be of value to the community.”

The COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic will be led by Interim Clinical Director Paul Cain who directs the Criminal Defense Clinic in Rockford, Clinical Professor Wendy H. Vaughn who directs the Civil Justice Clinic in Rockford, and Clinical Professor Colleen Boraca who directs the Health Advocacy Clinic in Aurora. They will work as a team, drawing from their individual areas of expertise, in order to provide the students with a unique experience.

The Clinic will operate primarily as a legal advice clinic working in partnership with other legal agencies.  Students will have an opportunity to be involved in the ever-changing delivery of legal services and provide counsel and advice to clients virtually through telephone and videoconferencing.

Students will be engaged in a variety of matters including: advising survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault through the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence Virtual Legal Clinic; advising seniors, disabled adults, and other individuals regarding Powers of Attorney and/or a Last Will and Testament; working through the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Compassionate Release Program on behalf of clients; advising Hesed House and Aunt Martha’s clients; advising community members referred through the Public Interest Law Initiative COVID-19 Illinois Free Legal Answers Taskforce; preparing community education materials; and responding to calls from potential clients.

“Our students are going to have much more of a broad exposure than they would have if they had just signed up for one of our clinics,” said Professor Boraca.  “They will also come out of this with enhanced analytical and critical thinking skills.  They will need to look closely at a caller’s situation and ask the right questions because one small detail can completely change the appropriate advice.”

In addition, the COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic will include a remote classroom component and simulation training to update and prepare the students for the various experiential scenarios they will encounter.  At the end of the summer, clinical faculty will evaluate the clinic’s success and determine its continued viability based on the state of the pandemic and the potential extension of restrictions on face-to-face interactions with clients.

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