By Kimberly Ackmann, JD Deputy Court Administrator, 17th Judicial Circuit
Evolving, adapting, improving, and innovating. Chances are the objectives listed in your Circuit Court’s strategic plan address accessibility. This year alone, courts have adopted virtual courtroom platforms and reimagined access to the court and its services. New forms, rules and policies were developed. It may have felt like a whirlwind. In many instances, the urgency to change business practices may have meant that the collaboration among stakeholders was sacrificed.
As we determine which new practices and protocols are here to stay, we are also in a better place to enhance what has already been implemented. As you review forms, policies, protocols, rules, and technology projects that affect court users, consider including (or designating someone to be) your Circuit or County’s Self Represented Litigant (SRL) Coordinator.
The SRL Coordinator program is the grant receiving part of a statewide Court Navigator Network (Network) that is primed to consider how SRLs navigate the court system. A creation of the Access to Justice Commission, the Network is intended as a bridge, linking their courthouses with others throughout the state to share ideas, develop new resources, and establish programs for assisting SRLs. They participate in monthly meetings to learn from each other and from other agencies. They have been trained to know the latest referral resources, and the intricacies involved in providing assistance without providing legal advice. This group is trained on implicit bias, how to use plain language, and are creative communicators and problem-solvers.
Network members are a great resource that court leaders should utilize when shifting your eye to the post-pandemic “new” normal. These collaborators may review the language of policies, rules, and forms. They may also suggest alternatives that are easier to understand, such as a tool, a checklist, or a cheat sheet to be incorporated. They may recommend resources that will help educate your customers and can apply the lens of the SRL to your projects.
Perhaps you have noticed an ungreased wheel or two in the courthouse, causing SRLs to expend extra energy to keep it moving? Generate your concerns or a wish list and have a conversation. Did I mention those in this Network are a creative bunch? SRL Coordinator grant recipients in Illinois have received ATJ Commission funding for, and implemented: Courtroom Information Centers, Chat Bots, Worksheets and brochures for SRLs, Online Self Help Centers, “Prescription Pad” for Referrals, Videos to explain procedures, including using Zoom, Computer Stations, Early Resolution programs for Divorces, Online Dispute Resolution, Text Messaging reminders, … and many more!
The 17th Circuit has been involved in the Network since its inception. Monthly Network meetings provide the most up-to-date information on resources and tools available to SRLs and serve as a sounding board to discuss newly encountered challenges. Involvement has allowed us to remain nimble as our court system evolves. One of our earlier ATJ Commission-funded projects, in the wake of mandatory civil e-filing, helped us to reimagine our Self-Help Centers. We added signage, purchased flash drives to assist with E-filing, and added guides and organizational tools to help patrons self-navigate our centers. Throughout the pandemic, we received the support and encouragement to open an email account and launch our Ask the Court Nav program to assist those that could not visit our Winnebago County Self-Help Center. We are currently developing Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) programs to help parties negotiate Parenting Plans and to request prosecutor review of minor traffic violations. In preparation of platform development, the ATJ Commission also funded a training on ODR access considerations. These changes will make help make our Circuit accessible to our patrons at any place and at any time.
Would you like an SRL to have a better understanding of what is expected of them? Would you like court patrons to have a better understanding of what to expect from the court? Would you like to have easy access to ideas and resources from across Illinois? Get someone from your court to join the Court Navigator Network! If you are in a Circuit that does not have a Network member, please reach out to Jill Roberts ASAP. The deadline to apply to join the Network is TODAY, June 30, 2021!