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Help Arrives For People Who Represent Themselves In Court

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Ralph Weisheit
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WGLT
A courthouse can be a scary place for the many people to go without an attorney.

Not everybody has a lawyer when they go to court, but a new grant from the State Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice will help increase collaboration and resources for people who represent themselves in McLean County and around the Eleventh Judicial Circuit.

Jenna Kearns, a senior program manager for the Illinois JusticeCorps, said a surprising number of people go into a courtroom without the advice of counsel.

"There are many people who are navigating the system without the help of an attorney. I think there’s some older data that said in Illinois at least 50% of all people filing cases, at least one side of the case has someone who is unrepresented, and then in certain case types, that number can be a lot higher,” she said.

A public defender often handles the criminal side, but self-representation is higher on the civil side, particularly in family cases, divorce, child custody issues, addictions, and other smaller causes, said Kearns.

The grant funding will provide scanners, additional computers, additional desks and work spaces for people who represent themselves in court. It also will begin to develop an artificial intelligence chat bot for assistance even when staff is unavailable.

The funding dovetails into the existing JusticeCorps program. Kearns said she is excited about the collaboration among staff throughout the circuit.

"As someone who’s engaged with JusticeCorps, we are physically only in McLean County, and so we’ve used the last year or so to help expand and look at ways that we can be throughout the entire circuit, not just in McLean County," said Kearns

JusticeCorps is an AmeriCorps program, but also includes volunteers, retired judges, retired attorneys, and some active lawyers who serve as navigators — people who are trained to aid in proving legal information and procedural guidance.

Circuit Judge Amy McFarland said the statewide access to the justice commission has put together a plan for 2020-2023, comprised of 10 initiatives for granting access to justice in the state.

"We're very lucky to have the JusticeCorps here," said McFarland.

The program was launched in Cook County in 2009, and in McLean County in 2013. JusticeCorps currently operates in about 13 courthouses across the state.

“To have more access to language, both spoken word and sign language, interpreters for self-represented litigants, and training judges and court staff how to manage the self-represented," said McFarland.

The judge said there may be a relaxation of some rules when people represent themselves in court. There has been an increase in guidance from the state Supreme Court on policies that promote legal representation, such as granting attorneys limited scope representation, she said.

Kearns said the commission helps fund JusticeCorps and maintain program operations, allowing them to expand court navigator service.

McFarland said the presence of court navigators is a vital tool in courtrooms to prevent cases involving self-represented people from bogging down, by helping them find forms, file them, and get them ready to go to court.

“We didn’t have to continue hearings, so hearings aren’t delayed and ongoing. We can sometimes wrap things up in one court hearing. I think we've seen a huge impact on our dockets of people being able to get through and navigate the system in a much more effective way,” she said.

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