Legal office can offer students valid advice

By Holly Schubert

NIU students in need of legal assistance but unable to afford private counsel can turn to the Students’ Legal Office for help.

Attorney Donald Henderson, director of the Student Legal Assistance Office, said the goal of his office is to make legal information and advice available to NIU students, especially those who otherwise cannot obtain legal counsel because of limited finances.

The office is unique because it was one of the first of a group legal-services program of its kind, meaning it is financed mutually by a group of individuals. The office opened at NIU in 1972, and since then has been totally financed by the Student Association through student activity fees.

The office is limited, however, in that it cannot handle matters pertaining to NIU and cases between clients. Also, students financially able to obtain private counsel with their own financial resources are not eligible for the office’s legal services.

Henderson and Attorney Lynn M. Richards deal with both civil and criminal cases. Civil cases are disputes between individuals and criminal cases are incidences in which someone has violated a law or an ordinance.

Henderson estimates that 33 to 36 percent of the cases his office handles involve landlord and tenant situations. This includes reviewing leases, dealing with security deposit problems and preventing evictions.

Often, the office practices preventative law in this area by educating tenants of their rights and obligations. “In any situation where someone has a legal question, it’s far better to contact us before making a legal obligation than after,” Henderson said.

If an individual is having a problem with his or her landlord, Henderson said, the individual should give the landlord fair notice and opportunity to resolve the problem. If this doesn’t work, he recommends writing a letter and keeping a copy for one’s own records. If the problem persists, then the student should seek legal help from an attorney or a government consumer agency.

Other types of cases the office handles include consumer law, domestic relations, insurance coverage and miscellaneous circumstances. The office also gives guest lectures in classes and dormitories, provides publications on a variety of legal topics, registers voters and offers a notary public.

Because there are only two attorneys representing 24,000 students, the demand for legal services is great and the office must limit the number of cases it can take to litigation. The Students’ Legal Assistance Advisory Board and the attorneys make the decision on what cases the office can handle.

Because the office serves so many students, Henderson requests that students make an appointment before coming in. He said students never have to wait more than a week and the office makes every effort to accommodate emergencies.