By Jill E. Roberts, Deputy Director, Access to Justice Division
Thousands of litigants appear in the Illinois courts without an attorney every year. The growing number of self-represented litigants (SRLs) in court is not unique to any one circuit, county, or case type. The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice (ATJ Commission) and the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts Access to Justice Division recognize, given the size and diversity of Illinois, that local partners are critical to fully understand and address the needs of the SRL population. For these reasons, the ATJ Commission created two grant programs to increase local partnerships - one to encourage the development of Online Dispute Resolution programs and one for Court Navigators.
Online Dispute Resolution: Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) has the potential to expand the public’s access to justice and improve their experience with court processes. ODR uses technology to facilitate the resolution of disputes, or of issues within disputes, usually between parties who are self-represented. ODR primarily involves negotiation, mediation, arbitration, or a combination of all of these. ODR may be used to resolve a wide range of disputes, including traffic infractions, marital or familial disputes, as well as civil disputes more typically seen in small claims and eviction matters.
The ATJ Commission started a grant program with the goal to support the incubation and implementation of ODR pilot programs throughout the state and to evaluate their effectiveness, benefits, and downsides. We encouraged local courts to submit proposals for diverse and innovative ODR programs across all areas of law, technology platforms, and segments of Illinois’ population, including but not limited to self-represented litigants.
This year, the ATJ Commission awarded two ODR grants:
- Sixteenth Judicial Circuit, Kane County was awarded an execution phase grant for ODR in eviction cases.
- Circuit Court of Cook County, Domestic Relations Division was awarded a planning phase grant to work with Chicago Appleseed to assess the viability and benefits of an ODR program.
In addition to these programs, prior recipients continue to work towards continuing or launching ODR programs.
Court Navigator Network: The first program to offer personal assistance to SRLs locally was Illinois JusticeCorps, a partnership between the ATJ Commission, Illinois Bar Foundation, and Chicago Bar Foundation, that currently serves in 11 counties across the state. Subsequently, in late 2017, the ATJ Commission launched the Self-Represented Litigant Coordinator grant program, which identified individuals in local courts who would develop resources and offer assistance to SRLs. To fulfill a major goal of the Illinois Judicial Conference’s strategic agenda, the ATJ Commission expanded those existing networks to encompass named representatives in all 24 Judicial Circuits. This Court Navigator Network (Network) of circuit clerks and court staff based in courthouses throughout the state serves as a bridge, linking their courthouses with others throughout the state to share ideas, develop new resources, and establish programs for assisting SRLs.
This year, the Network will meet via Zoom the week of August 15 for orientation to cover topics such as information vs. legal advice, communication and de-escalation, and emotional well-being/self-care. The Network will continue to receive training throughout the year as well as have opportunities to collaborate and share resources with their counterparts across the state.
Although there are Network members from nearly every Judicial Circuit, here is the list of this year’s newly awarded SRL Coordinator grant recipients and their grant projects:
- First Judicial Circuit: Brenda Sprague, Administrative Assistant to the Chief Judge, will serve all nine counties in the circuit to do trauma-informed training, work with the Circuit Clerk offices, expand Lawyer in the Library programs, and continue community outreach.
- First Judicial Circuit: Union County Circuit Clerk Keri Clark will start Community Legal Aid Clinics and work with Brenda to engage all the Circuit Clerks in the region.
- Second Judicial Circuit: Dee Dee O’Bright, Administrative Assistant, will start a lawyer in the library program and reach out to all 12 counties in the Circuit to determine SRL needs.
- Third Judicial Circuit: Received three SRL Coordinator grant awards for:
- Law Librarian Angela Wille to coordinate two assistants to serve petitioners in Order of Protection cases.
- Foreclosure Mediation Administrator Jennifer Dunham to work on foreclosure mediation.
- Madison County Circuit Clerk’s Office employee Gina Hargrave to launch a text-message reminder system.
- Fourth Judicial Circuit: Marion County Circuit Clerk Tiffany Schicker will install public Wi-Fi and telephones in the self-help center.
- Sixth Judicial Circuit: Trial Court Administrator Lori Hansen will purchase equipment for the self-help center and reimburse Land of Lincoln Legal Aid for the staffing they provide in the self-help center.
- Seventh Judicial Circuit: Trial Court Administrator Suzann Maxheimer will create SRL work spaces in the Jersey and Scott County courthouses.
- Ninth Judicial Circuit: Trial Court Administrator Sandy Redington will create space in Hancock County for SRLs and install diaper changing stations, install virus wiping software to all counties in the Circuit, and purchase some technology equipment.
- Tenth Judicial Circuit: Jennifer Shadid, CFO, will oversee the hiring of a staff member in the Law Library and Self-Help Center.
- Eleventh Judicial Circuit: Mary Sellmyer, Library Navigator, will work with 4 of the 5 counties to provide technology equipment or furniture/space/resources to better serve SRLs.
- Eleventh Judicial Circuit: Woodford County Circuit Clerk’s Office employee Diane Anderson will create 4 SRL work stations.
- Twelfth Judicial Circuit: Law Librarian Jeane Fillipitch will begin a Lawyer in the Library program for small claims, child support/custody, and expungement.
- Fifteenth Judicial Circuit: Stephenson County Circuit Clerk Shanelle Bardell will expand Zoom capabilities in courtrooms, upgrade and create SRL work stations, and update monitors with docket information.
- Sixteenth Judicial Circuit: Law Librarian Halle Cox will create new signage and materials and utilize interpreters with their legal aid partnerships to serve more patrons.
- Nineteenth Judicial Circuit: Beth Bogie and Frances Paparigian will continue the early resolution program for divorces (in partnership with Prairie State Legal Services), continue an online chat function on the court’s website, and provide eviction mediation services.
- Twentieth Judicial Circuit: St. Clair County Law Librarian Juli Donahue will upgrade five computer stations and add a sixth station in the Law Library.
- Twenty-First Judicial Circuit: Trial Court Administrator Lori Wolf and Administrative Assistant to the Chief Judge Heather Ruel will complete the relocation of the self-help and Illinois JusticeCorps services to the same place near the Circuit Clerk’s office.
- Twenty-Third Judicial Circuit: received two SRL Coordinator grant awards for:
- Marilyn Stromborg, Legal Counsel for DeKalb County Circuit Clerk’s Office, will get portable equipment for Zoom and self-help services, partner with Community Mental Health Board and the Bar Association’s Ask-A-Lawyer program, design and administer surveys for SRL needs, start “Court Talks” outreach sessions, improve signage, work on making their website more SRL friendly, and implement a digital reminder system for court dates.
- Shelly Holbach in the Kendall County Circuit Clerk’s Office will improve the Law Library and Self-Help Center spaces, have dedicated staff assist court patrons, and strengthen relationships with partners.
- Circuit Court of Cook County:
- Domestic Relations Division - District 1 Chicago - Nairee Hagopian to continue to equip hearing officers and mediators with Zoom licenses and equipment to continue the early resolution triage program.
- District 3 – Rolling Meadows: Susan Castans will help coordinate an advice desk for SRL court calls with Legal Aid Society.
- District 4 - Maywood: Audrey Garner will continue to oversee a partnership with Chicago Volunteer Legal Services for a help desk.
Please join us in congratulating all ATJ Commission grant recipients and encouraging their efforts to make Illinois courts better, easier, and more accessible for self-represented litigants. If you have any questions or are interested in joining the Network, please email Jill Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.