By Jill E. Roberts, Deputy Director, Access to Justice Division
Thousands of litigants appear in the Illinois courts without a lawyer 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 a grant program to increase local partnerships, the newly renamed Access to Justice Improvement Grant.
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. What started in one county has now expanded this year to 17 jurisdictions across the state. Subsequently, in late 2017, the ATJ Commission launched the Self-Represented Litigant Coordinator grant program (now ATJ Improvement grant), 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 Court Navigator Network met via Zoom on August 14 and 15 for orientation to cover topics such as an Illinois courts overview, information vs. legal advice, and 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 every Judicial Circuit, here is just the list of this year’s newly awarded ATJ Improvement 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, expand Lawyer in the Library programs, support a new Illinois JusticeCorps fellow, and launch a therapy dog pilot.
First Judicial Circuit: Jackson County Circuit Clerk Cindy Svanda will update computer equipment in the office for clerks who assist self-represented litigants.
First Judicial Circuit: Union County Circuit Clerk Keri Clark will work on a mobile app, start a Lawyer in the Courthouse program, and partner with the Chief Judge’s office to create best practices documents.
First Judicial Circuit: Williamson County Circuit Clerk’s office staff member Gagan Bedi will create two self-help stations in the clerk’s office.
Second Judicial Circuit: Erica Summers, Administrative Assistant, will expand a Lawyer in the Library program to three additional counties in the circuit.
Third Judicial Circuit: received three 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 enhance the foreclosure mediation program.
- Madison County Circuit Clerk’s Office employee Gina Hargrave to continue their text-message reminder system, create a chat bot, and camera equipment for passport photos.
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: Danielle Monahan will help coordinate an advice desk for SRL court calls for Judge Rossanna Fernandez with Legal Aid Society.
District 4 - Maywood: Audrey Garner will continue to oversee a partnership with Chicago Volunteer Legal Services for a help desk for Judge McMahon Zeller’s court call.
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.