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JusticeCorps expands, looks to add to 83,000 assisted in 2017

By Kathryn Hensley, JusticeCorps Officer, Civil Justice Division, and Judge Patricia Golden (Ret.), Chair of the Illinois JusticeCorps Steering Committee

June 25, 2018

Illinois JusticeCorps (ILJC) is an AmeriCorps program that places volunteers from diverse backgrounds in courts to help people without lawyers navigate the justice system. The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice (ATJ Commission), in partnership with the Illinois Bar Foundation and the Chicago Bar Foundation, provides oversight of this unique program aimed at assisting self-represented litigants in courthouses across the state. Last year, 68 ILJC members helped make courthouses less intimidating for over 80,000 court patrons in Illinois .  

Launched in Chicago in 2009 as a pilot project and modeled after California JusticeCorps, ILJC expanded statewide in 2012. ILJC Fellows, who commit to a year of service in their respective courthouse, undergo intensive training on legal information versus advice, the court system, and working with unrepresented litigants. This year, ILJC will serve in 13 courthouses across the state, representing 11 circuits and assisting in each of the five appellate districts. Current sites include: Champaign, Cook (Daley Center and Markham), Kankakee, Knox, Lake, Madison, McLean, Will and Winnebago Counties. The ATJ Commission is pleased to announce that the following counties were awarded JusticeCorps Fellows this program year: Kane, McHenry, and the Circuit Court of Cook County's Criminal Division.  

The program complements existing initiatives by the ATJ Commission to ensure access to the judicial system for all Illinois residents. It is well documented that the demand for free or low-cost legal representation greatly exceeds supply. According to AOIC data, 93 of Illinois' 102 counties report 50% or more of civil cases have at least one SRL. With legal aid service providers and pro bono lawyers unable to meet demand, this means that hundreds of thousands of people who are unable to hire an attorney are forced to represent themselves in order to resolve their civil legal issues. Under the guise of the Illinois Supreme Court’s Safe Harbor policy, ILJC members fill a void by providing neutral legal information, not advice; and thus, the benefits of the program in our state's courthouses are multifold.

First, ILJC members enhance existing efforts of pro bono services, legal aid programs and court personnel to help people without lawyers navigate a daunting system and connect them with community resources. Self-represented litigants are often coming to court to resolve legal issues that affect their fundamental liberties, including family, employment, housing, finances, and personal safety. ILJC members provide a welcoming environment as a first point of contact for these litigants. They assist patrons on both sides of the case with completing statewide court forms in nearly every area of law, make referrals to local legal and social service resources, help with e-filing of court documents, and explain legal procedures. By analyzing the legal issues that affect self-represented people and directing them to appropriate resources, members empower patrons with the information necessary to make the best decisions for their case.

Additionally, with the approval of the local judiciary, ILJC members are often stationed in courtrooms to assist judges and court staff involving cases with self-represented litigants. Members help make court calls more efficient by providing neutral assistance to parties in cases involving orders of protection, foreclosure mediation, expungement of criminal records, and family law cases, such as dissolution of marriage and child custody. As ILJC Fellow, Natalie Loless , explained:

In Edwardsville, we worked closely with orders of protection. Oftentimes, we would help both parties through their paperwork. It left quite an impression on me every time. There are two sides to every story, and as a JusticeCorps member, I had the opportunity to help both individuals without prejudice or judgment. I think this is a valuable life lesson to take with me into the legal field. There should be no predetermination of guilt or innocence. Each party needed genuine help through their legal situation, and I was able to help them because of the JusticeCorps position.

The ATJ Commission is proud that the program serves as a gateway for future leaders of the legal profession and instills a duty of volunteerism at the outset of career paths. By design, ILCJ recruits individuals from diverse backgrounds who live and work in the neighborhoods they serve. The majority of ILJC members are undergraduate students or recent college graduates who are dedicated to strengthening their communities. In order to ensure diversity of membership, ILJC has established partnerships with 19 universities, colleges and technical programs throughout Illinois.

At its core, ILJC offers young people a glimpse into the work that occurs within the justice system, introduces them to stakeholders and their respective roles, and explains outcomes and implications for litigants involved in civil cases. It also provides a window into the daily life of being an attorney and what such a career path entails. Members not only have the chance to serve in their courthouses on a daily basis, but they also have opportunities to meet Illinois Supreme Court Justices, work closely with the Chief Judges of their Circuit, attend bar association events, and receive mentorship from judges, attorneys and court staff who are invested in their futures. Ms. Loless further noted of her service, “I am attending law school in the fall in hopes of becoming a practicing attorney. I will take everything I learned during my JusticeCorps time. Specifically, it was amazing to interact with SRLs and see the impact that pro bono work and volunteering can have on their lives. I hope to be able to help individuals on a larger level as an attorney, and still maintain my love of volunteerism.”

The ATJ Commission looks forward to continued collaboration with the Illinois Bar Foundation, the Chicago Bar Foundation, and the Illinois judicial branch on this important initiative to serve SRLs in local courthouses. Through this partnership, we intend to further develop and strengthen the program, and to offer ILJC in more courthouses throughout the state to enhance meaningful access to the courts and justice for all.

If you are interested in learning more about the Illinois JusticeCorps program, please contact Kathryn Hensley, AOIC JusticeCorps Officer, at khensley@illinoiscourts.gov or Stacey Jonas Weiler, Illinois JusticeCorps Program Operations Director, at sweiler@justicecorps.org.

1. 49,000 instances of information and navigational assistance; 34,000 instances of self-help and legal aid referrals. 
2.Natalie Loless is the 2017-2018 JusticeCorps Fellow for Madison County. She will be attending the University of Tennessee College of Law this fall on a full scholarship.