By: Jill E. Roberts, Supervising Senior Program Manager, Access to Justice Division
Thousands of litigants appear in the Illinois courts without an attorney 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 two grant programs to increase local partnerships, one to encourage the development of Online Dispute Resolution programs and one for Court Navigators.
Online Dispute Resolution: Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) has the potential to expand the public’s access to justice and improve their experience with court processes. ODR uses technology to facilitate the resolution of disputes, or of issues within disputes, usually between parties who are self-represented. ODR primarily involves negotiation, mediation, arbitration, or a combination of all of these. ODR may be used to resolve a wide range of disputes, including those involving consumers, traffic infractions, marital or familial type relationships, as well as civil disputes more typically seen in small claims and eviction matters.
Last year, the ATJ Commission started a grant program with the goal to support the incubation and implementation of ODR pilot programs throughout the state to evaluate their effectiveness, benefits, and downsides. We encouraged local courts to submit proposals for diverse and innovative ODR programs across all areas of law, technology platforms, and segments of Illinois’ population, including but not limited to self-represented litigants.
This year, the ATJ Commission awarded three ODR grants:
- First Judicial Circuit, Jackson County was awarded an execution phase grant and provided additional funds to purchase and launch their traffic ODR program that they investigated with last year’s grant funds, pending AOIC approval.
- Sixth Judicial Circuit, Champaign County was awarded a planning phase grant and given funds to research and plan for the implementation of brand new ODR program.
- Twelfth Judicial Circuit, Will County was awarded additional funds to continue collecting data and creating an ODR program for Small Claims cases.
In addition to these programs, the 10th Judicial Circuit has a family law ODR program that is running and the 17th Judicial Circuit, Winnebago County, continues to work towards launching a traffic ODR program.
Court Navigator Network: 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, that currently serves 13 courthouses in 11 counties. Later, in late 2017, the ATJ Commission launched the Self-Represented Litigant Coordinator grant program, which identified individuals in local courts who would develop resources and offer assistance to SRLs. Last year, to fulfill a major goal of the Illinois Judicial Conference’s strategic agenda, the ATJ Commission expanded those existing networks to encompass representatives in all 24 Judicial Circuits. This Court Navigator Network (Network) of 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, perhaps through additional and new methods because of COVID-19.
For this grant period, the Court Navigator Network will meet via Zoom the week of August 16 for orientation to cover topics such as information vs. legal advice, implicit bias, and trauma-informed services. The Network will continue to receive training throughout the year as well as have opportunities to collaborate and share resources with their partners across the state.
Although there are Network members from almost every Judicial Circuit, here is just the list of SRL Coordinator grant recipients and their grant projects:
- First Judicial Circuit: received SRL Coordinator grant funds for Brenda Sprague, Administrative Assistant to the Chief Judge, to serve all nine counties in the circuit to determine the needs of SRLs and provide training to community partners.
- First Judicial Circuit: Union County Circuit Clerk Keri Clark received SRL Coordinator grant funds to create a training protocol and an SRL Center.
- Third Judicial Circuit: received three SRL Coordinator 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 set up an eviction mediation program with partners.
- Madison County Circuit Clerk’s Office employee Gina Hargrave to oversee implementing a Case Management System triage program.
- Fourth Judicial Circuit: Marion County Circuit Clerk Tiffany Schicker received SRL Coordinator grant funds to audit and adapt local court forms (where there are no standardized court forms for the same remedy) and update the website to be more user friendly.
- Sixth Judicial Circuit: received two SRL Coordinator grants for:
- Champaign County Circuit Clerk Susan McGrath to run an Expungement Summit with a variety of partner organizations.
- Trial Court Administrator Lori Hansen to explore creating self-help kiosks in the courthouse.
- Seventh Judicial Circuit: received SRL Coordinator grant funds for the Trial Court Administrator Suzann Maxheimer to coordinate videoconferencing equipment in Macoupin, Jersey, and Scott Counties.
- Ninth Judicial Circuit: received SRL Coordinator grant funds for Trial Court Administrator Sandy Redington to purchase and implement monitors to inform litigants of their courtroom and other useful information.
- Tenth Judicial Circuit: received SRL Coordinator grant funds for Deputy Trial Court Administrator Jennifer Shadid to oversee the creation of an ATJ Coordinator for the Law Library/Self-Help Center and ODR program.
- Eleventh Judicial Circuit: received grant funds for Mary Sellmyer, Library Navigator, to assess SRL needs in all 5 counties and explore a chatbot platform.
- Twelfth Judicial Circuit: received SRL Coordinator grant funds Law Librarian Jeane Fillipitch and SRL Coordinator Alfreda Baran to continue the Early Resolution Program for divorces.
- Sixteenth Judicial Circuit: received SRL grant funds for Law Librarian Halle Cox to serve Kane County by improving messaging and information for SRLs and purchase more technology equipment for SRLs.
- Nineteenth Judicial Circuit: received SRL Coordinator grant funds for Beth Bogie and Frances Paparigian to continue the early resolution program for divorces (in partnership with Prairie State Legal Services), continue an online chat function on the court’s website, and do eviction mediation services.
- Twentieth Judicial Circuit: St. Clair County received SRL Coordinator grant funds for Law Librarian Juli Donahue to equip the computers in the Law Library for Zoom.
- Twenty-First Judicial Circuit: received SRL Coordinator grant funds for Trial Court Administrator Lori Wolf and Administrative Assistant to the Chief Judge Heather Ruel to relocate the self-help and Illinois JusticeCorps services to the same place near the Circuit Clerk’s office.
- Twenty-Third Judicial Circuit: received two SRL Coordinator grant awards for:
- Marilyn Stromborg, Legal Counsel for DeKalb County Circuit Clerk to create a self-help center.
- Caryn Collins in the Kendall County Circuit Clerk’s Office to create a Connection to the Courts Center (CCC).
- Circuit Court of Cook County: received four SRL Coordinator grant funds for
- Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County- Samuel Williams to create a family law SRL customer service center in the Daley Center, Chicago
- 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: Susan Castans will help coordinate an advice desk for SRL court calls with Legal Aid Society.
- District 4 - Maywood: LaShanda O'Quinn will continue to oversee a partnership with Chicago Volunteer Legal Services for a help desk.
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.