By Alison D. Spanner
The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice is pleased to announce the awardees
of the Jeffery D. Colman Access to Justice Award.
The Commission created this award in 2019 to honor Jeff Colman’s years of service on the Access to Justice Commission and his dedication to the principles of fairness and justice for all. As the first Chair of the Commission, Jeff was instrumental in developing the Commission’s initial strategic plan and foundational programs and objectives.
The Commission was scheduled to begin the annual presentation of the Jefferey D. Colman award in the summer of 2020, but the plans were delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission is now presenting this honor for years 2020, 2021, and 2022.
“The Commission on Access to Justice is honored to present the Jeffery D. Colman Access to Justice Award to these recipients. Each one of them honor Mr. Colman’s dedication to the principles of fairness and justice for all," said Andrew M. Weaver, Deputy Director for Program Operations for Land of Lincoln Legal Aid and Chair of the Awards Selection Committee. "Their work to provide self-represented litigants greater access to our courts advances the mission of the Commission to provide unrepresented individuals with equal access to justice.”
For 2020, the Committee selected Judge Michael Fiello and Judge Catherine Schneider for their vital roles in developing standardized court forms, the Commission’s flagship project.
Judge Fiello and Judge Schneider have volunteered countless hours with the Commission since its inception. Judge Fiello began his work with the Commission in 2012 as a Commissioner, co-chair of the Forms Committee, and chair of the Family Law Forms Subcommittee. In that same year, Judge Schneider began her work with the Commission as chair of the Civil Procedures Forms Subcommittee and later became co-chair of the Forms Committee.
“Judge Fiello and Judge Schneider have devoted countless hours to this endeavor and displayed great wisdom, knowledge, and empathy while doing so,” said Justice Mary K. Rochford, who nominated Judge Fiello and Judge Schneider for the award. “Their leadership of the Forms Committee has been instrumental in assuring that self-represented litigants have plain and legally sufficient forms and instructions for the completion, filing, and presentation of the forms. Additionally, the forms allow court staff to better assist self-represented litigants in navigating court procedures.”
The standardized forms promote a more fair and accessible system of justice by providing clear, plain language documents that help demystify the court system for litigants without lawyers or other available legal resources. Under the leadership of Judges Fiello and Schneider, the Forms Committee has finalized 52 unique standardized form suites with a total of 202 forms in many different areas of law. These forms and their accompanying instructions are essential resources for self-represented litigants and are widely used throughout the state.
Prior to becoming judges, these awardees had distinguished legal careers. Judge Fiello was with Land of Lincoln Legal Aid for over 32 years as a staff attorney and later as the managing attorney of the Southern Regional Office in Carbondale. Judge Schneider first served as the Pro Bono Coordinator with the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, and then later as a public interest career counselor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. At the same time, she also served as a volunteer attorney, associate board member, and treasurer of the Board of Directors at CARPLS. Finally, she spent the ten years just prior to joining the bench as a supervising attorney at CARPLS, where she ran all operations for the CARPLS Municipal Court Advice Desk at the Daley Center in Chicago.
For 2021, the Committee selected Halle Cox, Kane County’s Law Library & Self-Help Director. She has served in this role since 1993 and throughout her tenure has openly advocated for and fiercely supported equal access to justice.
In his application for Halle’s nomination for the award, Chief Judge Clint Hull stated: “Through bold and distinctive leaders like Halle, self-represented litigants can acquire the skills to locate legal information and advocate for themselves effectively.”
One of Halle’s notable contributions was the establishment of the Kane County’s Lawyer in the Library initiative, which brings volunteer attorneys together with those in the Kane County community who can most benefit from free legal guidance. In 2021 alone, 239 members of the public received assistance from attorneys through three free legal help programs—Divorce and Family Law Help Call-In Program (weekly), Divorce and Family Law Help Walk-In Program (weekly), and Lawyer in the Library at Gail Borden Public Library (monthly). Additionally, Halle has sought and secured valuable resources for the law library.
For four years in a row, Hallie has served as the self-represented litigant coordinator for the 16th Circuit and has used grant funds from the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice in significant ways, including the purchase of equipment, databases, and software to better support the needs of self-represented litigants in eFiling, attending court hearings remotely (Zoom Court), locating general legal information, accessing court interpreters, and participating in the Lawyer in The Library programs.
Halle also provides onsite coordination for the 16th Judicial Court’s full-time JusticeCorps Fellow in Illinois.
2022, the Committee selected Melissa Piccola, Director of Pro Bono
& Community Partnerships at Legal Aid Chicago. Melissa is responsible for connecting self-represented litigants with access to legal advice. By partnering with other advocacy organizations and law firms, she has vastly expanded the legal aid opportunities available to pro bono attorneys. As a result, more self-represented litigants received assistance from pro bono attorneys during a time when the need for legal services skyrocketed due to the pandemic.
As Katherine Shank, Deputy Director, Legal Aid Chicago, stated about Melissa when nominating her: “She has taken every project we have given her, and dreamed up and executed on others we could not have imagined, and performed beyond expectation. It is no exaggeration to say that Melissa has been responsible for increasing access to justice for thousands of people.”
During her career, Melissa also helped Legal Aid Chicago significantly expand its criminal record relief work, with a particular focus on expungement and sealing. This project serves most clients through one-day clinics where attorneys receive training in the morning and later meet with clients and prepare petitions for expungement and sealing. Along with her team, Melissa helped create a model for screening, intake and petition preparation and filing and developed relevant training materials for pro bono attorneys and handouts for clients. Melissa also launched an Eviction Brief Advice Desk in May 2018 and helped Legal Aid Chicago’s Juvenile Expungement Help Desk pivot to operating remotely.
Through all her work, Melissa has made sure that members of our community have not fallen through the justice gap but instead received legal assistance.
Through this Award, the Commission is grateful to honor the ongoing commitment of many to improving access to the court system.