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Access to Justice Division | State of Illinois Office of the Illinois Courts

(312) 793-3859 (Chicago Office)

Alison Spanner, Assistant Director

The Access to Justice Division (Formerly the Civil Justice Division) was established in January 2014. The Access to Justice Division's objective is to help the legal system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all court users, particularly to those who are low-income and vulnerable. The Access to Justice Division also supports the work of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice (ATJ Commission), and works collaboratively with the ATJ Commission and its subcommittees to promote access to justice within the Illinois courts. Moreover, Access to Justice Division staff work closely with the other Divisions of the Administrative Office and with other Access to Justice system stakeholders to improve the justice delivery systems that serve low-income, limited English proficient, self-represented and vulnerable litigants.

The Access to Justice Division's current priorities include: (1) developing statewide standardized forms for simpler civil legal problems and basic procedural functions; (2) providing language access services and support to assist state courts in addressing language barriers and improving interpreter services; (3) developing training materials and education programs for courts, clerks and other judicial stakeholders to assist with interacting with self-represented litigants and limited English proficient parties and witnesses; (4) developing statewide appellate resources for self-represented litigants; and (5) expanding statewide Access to Justice data collection, research and analysis to aid in the development of innovative strategies to close the gap between the need for and the availability of quality legal assistance.

Illinois Court Help

In 2020, the Access to Justice Division partnered with the ATJ Commission to develop a new service that increased access to court and procedural information. Illinois Court Help launched in May 2021 as a free service that connects people to the information and resources they need to go to court. Trained court guides provide step-by-step instructions by phone, text, or email about the court process in all Illinois courts – circuit, appellate, and Supreme Court - including how to e-file and how to appear in court via Zoom. The service does not provide legal advice but can connect people to legal assistance and community resources that can help them resolve their problem.

Standardized Forms

The Access to Justice Division partners with the ATJ Commission’s Forms Committee (Forms Committee) and its various subcommittees to develop standardized, simplified forms that—once promulgated by the Forms Committee—must be accepted by state courts. Litigants who use the statewide standardized forms will be able to solve basic legal problems without the assistance of a lawyer. At present, the Division is supporting the work of 13 subcommittees developing forms in appellate, criminal records relief for adults and juveniles, family law, eviction, mortgage foreclosure, name change, orders of protection, small claims, civil asset forfeiture, civil procedures, criminal procedures, and guardianship. In 2022, the Access to Justice Division worked with consultants to develop a redesigned format of the forms and to update and streamline the development process and hope to implement changes in 2023.

Language Access

The Access to Justice Division’s language access efforts seek to promote initiatives and reforms to serve the growing number of people with limited English proficiency (LEP) participating in legal proceedings in state court. The Division also works with the ATJ Commission Language Access Committee to develop statewide standards and policies for courts and judges, and resources for LEP litigants. In 2014, the Court adopted the Illinois Supreme Court Language Access Policy and Code of Interpreter Ethics, which state that Illinois courts should provide interpreters for LEP litigants and witnesses in all civil and criminal proceedings and court-annexed proceedings. In support of the Court’s Language Access Policy, the Access to Justice Division administers a robust interpreter certification program. Foreign language and sign language interpreters that complete certification requirements are listed on the AOIC Court Interpreter Registry, which currently has 300 interpreters in 33 languages.

Community Trust

The ATJ Division staffs the ATJ Commission’s Community Trust Committee, which seeks to increase “public trust and confidence in the courts by bridging the gap between the courts and the communities they serve.” The Community Trust Committee began in 2017, with townhall meetings to gather feedback from court stakeholders. In 2021, the Committee was reconstituted to diversify its membership beyond lawyers and judges to include key community partners like public librarians and social service agency staff. More recently, the Committee has partnered with four community organizations: Trinity United Church of Christ on the southside of Chicago; Project NOW serving Henry, Mercer, and Rock Island Counties; and Metropolitan Family Services’ North and Southeast Chicago Community Centers. These organizations are established and trusted in their communities and work with diverse populations. The Committee collaborates with these organizations to convene community panels of their constituents. Recent community panels engaged in user testing of the statewide forms and survivors of domestic violence led to a series of listening sessions on domestic violence issues.

Disability Access

In 2022, the Court approved the formation of the ATJ Commission’s Disability Access Committee. The Committee’s mission is “to promote equal access to the court system for people with disabilities by partnering with the disability community and by engaging all stakeholders, from the community to the courtroom, to identify and address barriers to the court and legal process.” This mission, and the composition of the Committee’s roster, reflect the Committee’s intentional decision to partner directly with the disability community to improve accessibility. The Committee has identified two immediate areas of focus: empowering local Court Disability Coordinators (CDCs) and standardizing processes related to seeking accommodations across the state. Currently, the Committee is working on a proposed statewide disability access policy.

Training Materials and Educational Programs

The Access to Justice Division works with the ATJ Commission’s Court Guidance and Training Committee to develop and maintain training materials and educational programs on access to justice issues. In 2022, the Access to Justice Division conducted training clerks, court staff, and justice partners like public libraries in many individual counties focusing on the distinction between legal information and legal advice. The Access to Justice Division was also involved in planning several multi-disciplinary access to justice trainings for the 2022 Judicial Education Conference on language access, self-represented litigants, and remote appearances.

Appellate Resource Program

The Access to Justice Division’s Appellate Resource Program seeks to assist self-represented litigants in civil appeals throughout the state. Since the AOIC hired a Senior Program Manager in 2017 to oversee the initiative, the division has worked with the ATJ Commission Appellate Committee, Appellate Court Administrative Committee, as well as appellate clerks and research directors from all appellate districts to develop self-help materials. A dedicated self-help page was launched on the Illinois Courts’ website. It features detailed resources to assist self-represented litigants in civil appeals, such as a comprehensive FAQ section, e-filing manuals, a simplified process overview, and links to resources throughout the state to help litigants navigate an appeal. Also, the program partnered with the Public Interest Law Initiative to launch a virtual help desk for civil appeals. Low-income litigants with a legal problem can submit their questions through the website and have them answered by a lawyer. This is the first-ever appellate help desk for self-represented litigants in Illinois and it launched in September 2020.

Statewide Collaboration

The Access to Justice Commission seeks to create, maintain, and support a statewide network of court partners focused on serving self-represented litigants. This endeavor started with Illinois JusticeCorps, which was first piloted in 2009 and expanded to cover more jurisdictions. Currently, the program serves in 11 judicial circuits. In 2017, we launched the Self-Represented Litigant Coordinator grant program. In 2020, we combined these two programs and added additional representatives to an umbrella group, Court Navigator Network. Network members serve as a bridge, linking their courthouses with others throughout the state to share ideas, develop new resources, and establish programs for assisting self-represented and limited English proficient litigants. As of 2022, there was at least one representative from each judicial circuit participating in the Network.