Through the CBF’s work to make the courts more user-friendly and accessible for the growing number of people without lawyers, it became clear that court patrons often have a more immediate challenge than the legal issue that brought them there. People coming to court on their own often have a difficult time navigating a building that can seem labyrinthine, even to the most experienced lawyer, and many struggle to find where they can get basic information or connect to available legal resources. In 2009, the CBF decided to do something about that.
The CBF launched a small pilot program using student volunteers as courthouse greeters at the Richard J. Daley Center. That pilot program, Illinois JusticeCorps, proved to be such a success that it soon attracted other key partners and became an AmeriCorps program that has since been replicated at courthouses throughout the state. Last year, JusticeCorps volunteers at ten courthouses in nine counties served over 80,000 court patrons across Illinois, and more than 57,000 in Cook County alone.
Illinois JusticeCorps now operates as a partnership between the CBF, the Illinois Bar Foundation, and the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, with additional support from the Serve Illinois Commission and the Corporation for National and Community Service. JusticeCorps strives to improve the user experience at every step in the court process by recruiting and training college students and recent grads to offer navigational assistance, neutral legal information, and customized referrals to court patrons looking for legal help. The volunteers reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, and many have strong connections to the local community and the ability to offer help to non-native English speakers in their own languages.
At the Daley Center, JusticeCorps has now found a permanent home on the Concourse Level in the Resource Center for People without Lawyers. JusticeCorps volunteers work closely with the advice desks based within the Center, increasing the capacity of their attorneys to provide free legal services to people without lawyers. Volunteers are also available in the hallway outside the Resource Center whenever the courthouse is open to answer questions, make referrals, and offer a friendly greeting to passersby. What started out as a small pilot program at the CBF has now become an integral part of the courthouse and a model for others in Illinois and beyond.