A prominent Illinois sociologist and legal scholar has been awarded a prestigious fellowship from the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation for her work researching issues around accessibility of legal resources.
Rebecca Sandefur, who is a lesbian, was one of 25 persons awarded the prizereferred to colloquially as the "Genius Grant"for "promoting a new evidence-based approach to increasing access to civil justice for low-income communities," according to the Foundation. Sandefur is an associate professor in the department of sociology and the College of Law at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, as well as a faculty fellow of the Chicago-based American Bar Foundation.
Sandefur "was shocked" when she learned that she had won in late August, she said, adding, "This isn't anything that you ever expect will happen."
MacArthur fellows have free rein to do with their prize-earnings what they wish. Sandefur will put hers towards work helping establish legal resources for low-income persons.
"The crisis of civil justice in the United States is on a national scale," she explained. "We need to start thinking about deep solutions to this, so my plan is to use the fellowship for seed money to start working on those."
One such concept would be a program that could ultimately link professionals who are not attorneyssocial workers, for examplewith persons needing legal assistance who cannot afford a full-fledged attorney. Sandefur gave as an example persons involved in disputes with their landlord as the type of situation where such services could come into play.
"Sometimes lawyers are necessary, but sometimes it's clear that lawyers are not always necessary," said Sandefur.
Central to her work is helping individuals to understand that, if they have legal problems, they have the right to take action.
"Finding ways to distribute that knowledge, which is not as easy as it soundsyou can't just distribute a pamphlet that says, 'Hey, you've got rights'is one of the biggest barriers" to access, she said. "Often people don't even know that their problem is a legal problem and that the law can help them."