Written with Contributions from: Don Everhart, Jr, McLean County Circuit Clerk; Jenna Kearns, Senior Program Manager, Illinois JusticeCorps; Colin Kolodziej, Illinois JusticeCorps Fellow in the 11th Illinois Judicial Circuit Court; Mary Sellmyer, McLean County Court Navigator
May 25, 2021
An Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice Grant opportunity landed on Mary Sellmyer's desk last year as the 11th Judicial Circuit was in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reaching out to all five county partners seemed to be a way to help identify and articulate the self-represented litigants' (SRL) unique needs and then address them. The gift of a grant has provided just that opportunity. The following is the view through the eyes of four members of this newly formed collaboration.
Colin Kolodziej is the Illinois JusticeCorps Fellow in the 11th Judicial Circuit based out of the McLean County Law & Justice Center in Bloomington. SRLs face many hurdles in terms of access to justice, the biggest hurdle, regardless of the particulars of their case, is familiarity with the legal process. One example of this is the lack of understanding regarding e-filing. In most cases, the people in the law library have been referred by the circuit clerk in order to efile court documents. E-filing can be a daunting challenge for many who are not computer-savvy. In these instances, the JusticeCorps volunteers help to address these hurdles by walking SRLs through the process of e-filing step-by-step.
Another common challenge is the public's lack of knowledge about the civil legal process. The civil legal process can be intimidating to anyone, especially those without legal counsel. Unlike the criminal justice system, there is no pop culture for reference, there is no Law & Order: Civil Division Unit. Ensuring that people understand basic legal concepts such as how to effectuate proper service, what forms they need to respond to a civil suit, and what the process of getting a divorce entails are just some of the many issues that the JusticeCorps team fields.
The experience as a JusticeCorps Fellow has shaped Colin's professional goals. In the fall, he will be attending law school at the University of Cincinnati. When first entering the JusticeCorps program, Colin had interests in several areas of law: governmental work, criminal, and public interest law. Because of his time with JusticeCorps, he finds himself increasingly drawn to working for a legal aid organization, addressing the legal problems of indigent clients. The time spent working directly with court patrons has been the most gratifying experience for Colin, and he would like to continue that work in a professional career by serving the most vulnerable among us.
Jenna Kearns shares the responsibility of the local Illinois JusticeCorps management. Many compounding factors challenge SRLs navigating the court system. One that stands out is the fact that the legal system is not a welcoming place. It can feel impenetrable, inaccessible, private, and esoteric, especially when the system is filled with legalese and complicated language, like using the word esoteric. When a courthouse commits to a culture of being welcoming and helpful, it improves the SRLs' experiences and sense of belonging in a system that should be accessible for all, not just attorneys. The biggest challenge that Jenna has observed in the quest to assist an SRL is time. Time is a precious commodity and helping SRLs accomplish their goals takes time and patience. The more a courthouse can create time and space to help educate SRLs, the better the interaction will be for all parties involved.
Mary Sellmyer is the McLean County Law Library Navigator and works with Jenna and Colin as the site supervisor for JusticeCorps. She is the designated Self-Represented Litigant Coordinator who oversees the grant funds from the Access to Justice Commission. She has been spearheading efforts across the entire 11th Judicial Circuit. The ability to connect and meet with court staff from the other counties in the 11th Circuit has been a truly rewarding experience. Not only has it been fun getting to travel and meet people face-to-face (safely) again, but she has learned many new things. It was encouraging to see how invested and compassionate staff are to those who are trying to navigate the legal system on their own. Mary is excited by the prospect of building upon current conversations to see how to leverage resources and help enhance all the great systems that are already in place to welcome SRLs to their courthouses.
Don Everhart, Jr., McLean County Circuit Clerk, reflected that the legal system is inherently complex. "Without direct help, the SRL is many times lost. I have observed that the JusticeCorps' onsite presence is an integral piece of a positive SRL legal navigation experience within McLean County. Visiting the different counties has reinforced my appreciation of JusticeCorps and the immense help they provide to the SRLs as well as the staff. Looking forward, the additional collaborating with JusticeCorps' volunteers, interns, local colleges and high schools would be a powerful addition."
The 11th Judicial Circuit is fortunate to have significant support at all levels, including Chief Judge Mark Fellheimer, Ford County Circuit Clerk Kammy Johnson, Livingston County Circuit Clerk LeAnn Dixon, Logan County Circuit Clerk Kelly Elias, McLean County Circuit Clerk Don Everhart Jr., and Woodford County Circuit Clerk Lynne Gilbert. The circuit's Trial Court Administrator, Will Scanlon has been instrumental in helping to assemble the SRL equipment needs. Mary Sellmyer observed, "Without the diligence of our JusticeCorps staff and clerks, this type of endeavor would not be possible. Colin brings his hands-on ability to the forefront. Jenna has been able to identify and develop community connections."
In conclusion, we all know SRLs faces many challenges in our legal system. Bringing together a community across the 11th Judicial Circuit counties has helped to articulate both unique and common experiences for the purpose of an improved SRL experience. It truly takes a community to build a bridge for the SRLs to walk into the legal world and in the 11th Judicial Circuit of Illinois. The grant moneys received from the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice was a good start to putting these pieces together. The 11th Judicial Circuit has only just begun!