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Illinois Courts response to COVID-19

Details | State of Illinois Office of the Illinois Courts

Expanding our understanding of access to justice for all

8/24/2021

By Chief Justice Anne M. Burke and Special Guest Columnist Michael G. Bergmann

It is the end of August, which means that the hot, hazy days of the summer will soon be coming to an end. Parents are preparing to send their children back to school (hopefully, in-person) and the Supreme Court is preparing to head to Springfield for September Term. Now, with the protection afforded by COVID vaccines, we all are preparing to resume our normal daily work schedules – unless the COVID variant changes our timetables once again.

In any case, don’t put away your laptop computers and Zoom access passwords. Keep using the technology we have become so familiar with and which has been so invaluable to our ability to keep the courts open and accessible throughout the pandemic. Technology has now become an essential tool in our legal toolbox and it will be increasingly utilized in the provision of legal services into the future.

For now, BE SAFE and keep others safe – WEAR YOUR MASKS!

Today, my guest columnist is Michael G. Bergmann, Executive Director of the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI). Michael has served as Executive Director since 2010, providing strategic oversight and direction for PILI's stated mission, “to engage, inspire, and empower those advancing equal access to justice.” Under Michael’s leadership, PILI has significantly expanded its reach and impact, particularly in the development of innovative pro bono committees at the judicial circuit level across Illinois. This year, PILI will partner with the Illinois Judges Association to advance the IJA’s Pro Bono Committee.

I am certain you will find Michael’s article to be both informative and inspiring.

Expanding our Understanding of Access to Justice for All

By Michael G. Bergmann

While we may believe that access to justice is a fundamental right, our understanding of this concept has been evolving throughout our history as a nation. We often focus on providing free and low-cost legal services to the poor, but over the last year we have seen it as so much more.

“Equal justice under law” was such the cornerstone of the American legal system that it was etched into the façade of the United States Supreme Court building when it was built in the 1930s. Some forty years later, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Jr. had this to say: “Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building; it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society.”

While there is still a lack of resources in Illinois, we are blessed to have an extensive legal aid network of full-time legal aid attorneys and staff as well as pro bono attorneys who give of their talent and time to help those in need. And the judiciary also has an important role to play in supporting and encouraging those efforts. One such effort being undertaken over the next year is by the Illinois Judges Association (IJA). The IJA recently established a Pro Bono Committee (https://www.ija.org/pro-bono) that will explore ways in which sitting judges can support pro bono and in which retired judges can do pro bono to increase access to justice.

These last seventeen months have also shown a light on other barriers to access to justice. In March 2020, as the state and the world had to close due to COVID-19 pandemic, the Illinois Supreme Court acted quickly to establish the COVID-19 Task Force to address the ongoing challenges with resuming court operations. They issued orders to make remote appearance easier. While the pandemic sped up the need for these changes, the Court had previously noted one strategy for ensuring accessible justice was to promote and expand remote access in civil cases, allowing court patrons to have easier access to court services, court and case information, and court appearances.

While there are certainly limitations to remote appearances, the benefits are sizeable. For one, litigants do not have to take time off from work to travel to and appear in court, something of considerable importance to those faced with income and employment insecurity. Attorneys likewise can limit their travel, especially in rural areas, and lessen the legal bill faced by their client. This can even make it easier for an attorney to take on a pro bono matter that would otherwise require extensive travel. Remote court appearances can provide greater access to justice. As we continue to seek a return to normal, this area of accessibility should be further explored and expanded.

Another access to justice issue brought to the forefront again this year is the need for greater diversity, equity and inclusion in our legal system. In the conversations after George Floyd’s murder, it became apparent that Black people and other people of color in our country often experienced lesser access to justice. In June of 2020, the Illinois Supreme Court issued a statement saying in part, “Racism exists, whether it be actualized as individual racism, institutional racism or structural racism, and it undermines our democracy, the fair and equitable administration of justice, and severely diminishes individual constitutional protections and safeguards of full citizenship with the attendant rights and benefits sacred to all.”

In November 2020, the Illinois Supreme Court announced the hiring of the first-ever Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer within the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. And, in the spring of 2021, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism partnered with the Illinois Judges Association on a virtual three-part series entitled, “Building Confidence in our Legal System,” which brought together legal and community stakeholders across Illinois to address racial and other disparities in the legal system. Our work in this area likewise continues.

Ensuring an inclusive and accessible legal system is critical to promoting access to justice for all. It is important that the entire legal community, including the judiciary, expand our understanding of access to justice and work together to ensure its availability for all.