Steeped in History But Forward-Looking: Making the Courts Work for Everyone

Courts are, by design, backward-looking institutions. Lawyers and judges rely on case law from bygone decades. Clerks hand out paper forms sprinkled with ancient Latin phrases. The black robes, the gavels, and the rituals are steeped in history and tradition.

By choice, however, courts can also be forward-looking institutions. A foundational role in American society does not make them immune from innovation and disruption. Indeed, it is to protect that very foundation of equal justice that courts must evolve and adapt to best meet the demands of modern society, rapidly changing technology, and an increasingly diverse population.

Looking back at the CBF’s first 70 years, we can see how the CBF, the courts, and the legal community have worked together to constantly evaluate and improve services for the growing number of people without lawyers. From championing standardized, plain language forms to creating the Resource Center for People without Lawyers to launching and expanding the Illinois JusticeCorps program to bringing a consistent and strong advocacy voice to improve the system, the CBF has focused on making the courts a place where everyone can seek justice, not just people who can afford full legal representation.

As we look ahead to 2019 and beyond, the CBF will continue collaborating with our many partners in the courts and across the legal community to make the courts of the future part of a justice system that works for everyone. To achieve that goal, these are the tenets that will guide our work:

Reconsider the all or nothing approach to legal representation.

The number of people in court without lawyers has exploded over the last twenty years, with no end in sight. Millions of people across the state are starved for access to affordable legal representation and self-help resources. Limited scope representation can offer much-needed flexibility to working and middle-class people who need affordable help, but we don’t have enough of it yet. We must work with our court partners to prioritize and support the expansion of limited scope legal services and the development of self-help resources that empower people without lawyers to successfully handle lower-stakes matters and the more routine aspects of their other cases on their own, and without necessarily having to come to court for everything. Research and experience show that a little help can go a long way, and the longstanding “one size fits all” approach to legal representation isn’t working anymore.

Embrace technology, but only when it works.

When done right, technology can be a powerful tool for connecting people with courts, lawyers, and legal information. Technology should be integrated in a thoughtful way that complements existing resources and services, offers the necessary training and technical support for all stakeholders, and contemplates alternative paths for court patrons who are not tech-savvy. By working with our courts, we can help realize the promise of technology as a game-changer for access to justice.

Communication is key.

If a litigant leaves the courthouse and doesn’t understand what happened, our system hasn’t worked well. We should strive to make sure all communications incorporate plain language, visual aids, and adult learning principles to ensure that the court process can be understood and accessed by all. Modern means of communication, like email and text messaging, can be powerful tools in helping courts communicate more effectively and efficiently with the public, further increasing public understanding and confidence in the court system.

We have made great improvements in our courts by working together to embrace change, rather than fearing it. However, we also know that change is a constant, and that this work will continue for the next 70 years and beyond. We may not know yet what the courts of 2089 will look like, but we can be sure that with the help of the CBF and our partners in the legal community, they will be places that continue to welcome innovations, programs, and partnerships that improve access to justice for everyone.