April 26, 2021
During COVID-19 surges over the past year, Illinois courts switched rapidly to remote court appearances and transitioned many staff to work in a 100% virtual environment. While Illinois court policies have moved steadily in a more tech-reliant direction for several years (a notable example being the statewide e-filing mandate in 2018), new technology presents a host of access to justice barriers for court patrons with limited English proficiency and computer literacy, as well as for lower-income litigants who may not have computers or internet in their homes.
This comes as no surprise to our state, which has spent the past three years developing uniform, statewide avenues to help self-represented litigants (SRLs) operate within the confines of evolving technology. If someone can’t e-file because they have limited English, for example, they can certify this fact and file in the “old-fashioned way”- by giving paper copies of their court documents directly to the court clerk’s office. If they need a computer or internet, or just someone to show them the e-filing ropes, they can come to the court building and use public e-filing terminals available there. However, courts had no such time to prepare to fill in the access to justice gaps that COVID-19 created- as courts implemented tech-based changes within mere days, weeks, or hours. Furthermore, pandemic-prompted local court rules vary widely across the board. It is incumbent upon SRLs to find out how their relevant Circuit has adapted to the pandemic, and resources that were available to them before March 2020 may not be available, or not be available in the same way, today.
This can be confusing, stressful, and disheartening.
THE ROLE OF ILLINOIS JUSTICECORPS
My name is Nina Wilson, and I am an Illinois JusticeCorps Fellow in the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court of McHenry County, Illinois. Illinois JusticeCorps is a federally-sponsored service initiative that enables Fellows in 13 courthouses in 11 counties across Illinois to assist SRLs navigate the legal system- through filing court documents, accessing court forms, language translation services, and more. Illinois JusticeCorps was designed specifically to address statewide access to justice gaps through locally-focused lenses, and our cohort of Fellows has taken up the call in adapting to the novel challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Depending on local need and risk level, members of our Fellow cohort are currently working on a remote, in-person, or hybrid basis. Fellows statewide have developed unique ways to serve SRLs remotely, including creating telephone helplines, taking appointments over Zoom, and piloting Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) programs. I set up a phone helpline in McHenry County in December 2020, and it has proved a great way to connect with litigants. Over the phone, I talk them through the process of e-filing, in addition to emailing them court forms and referrals to other resources as necessary, like legal aid agencies.
The pandemic has forced everyone, to some degree, to reimagine our legal system. This isn’t to say that all of these changes are a bad thing, and, provided the requisite guidance exists to make technology accessible to all, technology can provide opportunities. One obvious advantage? If you live far away from the courthouse where your case is based, you no longer have to take time off from work, pay hefty travel costs, and- in a pandemic- risk your health and safety to come to court. I staff a phone helpline for McHenry County, and I have reached numerous patrons located out of state - and even one in Canada! I have also spoken to people on their work lunch breaks, who didn’t have time to come to court to ask questions, and SRLs in McHenry County who might have otherwise chosen to come to court, but didn’t have transportation.
A few weeks ago, I got a call from someone in Florida. A litigant needed to e-file into her McHenry County divorce case. Happy to finally find the resources she needed, she joked over the phone, “It’s crazy you can get a divorce over email now!” Though there may be a little more to it than that, this anecdote stuck with me. I believe that remote services are here to stay, even after the pandemic is over. In a perfect world, access to justice should be as simple as sending an email- and Illinois JusticeCorps Fellows are committed to doing what we can to make technology a tool for, rather than a barrier, to justice.