Highlighting 3 important initiatives of the Access to Justice Commission
The Illinois Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Justice is charged with promoting, facilitating, and enhancing equal access to justice, particularly in civil courts, for all people, including the poor and vulnerable. Since it was established in 2012, the Commission has engaged in a range of initiatives to support its mission at all levels of the judicial system. First District Appellate Court Justice Mary K. Rochford serves as Chair of the Commission, and more information about the Commission’s work can be found at its website atjil.org.
The Access to Justice Division of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts staffs the Commission. Here to discuss three important initiatives is Alison Spanner, Director of that Division.
Access to Justice Commission – 3 Initiatives
By Alison Spanner, Director, Access to Justice & Strategic Planning
I am pleased to highlight three of the Commission’s ongoing initiatives. These initiatives are noteworthy because they allow the Commission to engage directly with the court users it is charged with serving and to amplify their voices. The Commission uses the feedback gained through these initiatives to inform and advance its work.
Illinois Court Help
Illinois Court Help is an innovative and ground-breaking program which provides court users throughout the state with timely access to free information and assistance with court processes, court forms, e- filing, and more. Court users contact Illinois Court Help by phone, text message, or email to get help navigating the court system. Anyone seeking court information or with a question may call or text 833- 411-1121 or visit ilcourthelp.gov to send a message. A team of eight trained Court Guides respond to the questions and provide assistance. English and Spanish speakers are connected immediately to a Court Guide for assistance, and people who speak other languages are assisted by a Guide through an interpreter.
Since Illinois Court Help launched in May 2021, there have been over 29,000 contacts with the service by more than 18,000 people. Court users from 101 Illinois counties have used Illinois Court Help, with 42% of all interactions related to a case or problem in Cook County. Court Guides talk on the phone to approximately 100 people every day, with the average length of each call being 10 minutes. The Guides also engage in an average of 25-30 text messages and email conversations daily.
The service is predominantly used by self-represented court users, who make up 87% of all people who contact Illinois Court Help. Another 5% are a friend or family member seeking help or information for someone with a legal problem, and 2% are members of the public who do not have a specific court case or legal problem. Lawyers are 1.5% of users, while represented litigants make up 1.25% of users.
Most user questions relate to civil cases or problems (88%). Of the remaining inquiries: 4% relate to criminal cases/criminal records, 2% to traffic cases, and 6% to other or unknown issues. As to civil case inquiries, the top subject areas are:
- Small claims – 22.4%
- Divorce – 18.4%
- Eviction/housing – 13.1%
- Family – 10%
- Probate – 5.3%
- Orders of Protection – 4.25%
The benefits of this service are not limited to court users. Beyond aiding the smooth and efficient operations of the courts, Illinois Court Help provides real-time and invaluable insight into the needs of court users and the barriers they face. This allows the Commission to identify where additional resources and support for court users are needed.
Community Trust Committee
Another opportunity to collaborate directly with court users is through the Commission’s Community Trust Committee, which seeks to increase “public trust and confidence in the courts by bridging the gap between the courts and the communities they serve.” The Community Trust Committee began in 2017, with town hall meetings with a goal to gather feedback from court stakeholders. In 2021, the Committee was reconstituted to diversify its membership beyond lawyers and judges to include key community partners like public librarians and social service agency staff.
More recently, the Committee has partnered with four community organizations: Trinity United Church of Christ on the southside of Chicago; Project NOW serving Henry, Mercer, and Rock Island Counties; and Metropolitan Family Services’ North and Southeast Chicago Community Centers. These organizations are established and trusted in their communities and work with diverse populations. The Committee collaborates with these organizations to convene community panels of their constituents. A recent community panel of survivors of domestic violence led to a series of listening sessions on domestic violence issues. The Committee will share the feedback received at these sessions with the Court’s Committee on Domestic Violence. Community panels have also user tested drafts of the Commission’s statewide court forms. The Commission then incorporates the user testing feedback into the published forms.
The Commission provides funding to these organizations to support their community panel work because it values the time and lived experiences of these community members. This allows these organizations to reimburse panelists for their attendance and to provide additional support such as meals and space within the community to host feedback sessions.
Disability Access Committee
In 2022, the Court approved the formation of the Commission’s Disability Access Committee. The Committee’s mission is “to promote equal access to the court system for people with disabilities by partnering with the disability community and by engaging all stakeholders, from the community to the courtroom, to identify and address barriers to the court and legal process.” This mission, and the composition of the Committee’s roster, reflect the Committee’s intentional decision to partner directly with the disability community to improve accessibility.
The Committee has identified two immediate areas of focus: empowering local Court Disability Coordinators (CDCs) and standardizing processes related to seeking accommodations across the state. Currently, the Committee is working on a proposed statewide disability access policy.