They can help you right next to the Starbucks€¦

The Circuit Court’s Resource Center for People Without Lawyers Turns Three

By Kelly Tautges  |  CBF Director of Pro Bono & Court Advocacy

I am writing this letter today to praise one of your employees€¦ begins a letter thanking CARPLS for excellent legal advice at the Municipal Court Advice Desk and highlighting the especially kind and supportive service received from an Illinois JusticeCorps member as part of the process. This court patron’s letter highlights the unique and important services being provided in the Circuit Court of Cook County Resource Center for People without Lawyers in the concourse level of the Daley Center, which indeed is right next to the Starbucks there.

The Resource Center, and the critical help it provides, is now so firmly established in the court’s ecosystem that it is hard to believe it has only been open for three years. Fully operational as of April 2014, the Center is a partnership between the CBF, the Circuit Court, and two legal aid organizations: CARPLS and the Chicago Legal Clinic (CLC). There are three major legal advice desks in the Center the Municipal Court Advice Desk, the Chancery Court Advice Desk and the Domestic Relations Advice Desk. These three desks are managed and staffed by lawyers from CARPLS and CLC.

Illinois JusticeCorps play a central role as well. JusticeCorps volunteers have helped more than 160,000 people, and attorneys at the advice desks have provided advice and assistance in more than 37,000 cases since the Center opened.

JusticeCorps Volunteers Get People Where They Need to Go

One of the many advantages in the Resource Center for both court patrons and the advice desks is the presence of Illinois JusticeCorps, an innovative AmeriCorps program that is dedicated to making the courthouse more welcoming and less intimidating for people without lawyers. JusticeCorps volunteers, who mainly are undergraduate students and recent graduates, act as docents and provide other procedural and navigational assistance to people without lawyers. The CBF first launched Illinois JusticeCorps as a pilot in 2009 and continues to manage the program in Cook County. JusticeCorps later was expanded to other parts of the state as well, and the other partners in the program’s statewide operations include the Illinois Bar Foundation, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, and the Serve Illinois Commission.

Every morning starting at 8:00am, JusticeCorps volunteers are on site at the Center, managing the flow of traffic, checking people into the Center, and helping people get to where they need to be in the Daley Center. Since the Center opened, nine full-time AmericCorps fellows have served in the Daley Center, anchoring more than 150 part-time volunteers, who are mostly college students. Collectively, the fellows and part-time volunteers have contributed well over 30,000 hours of service.

A Network of Resources

A variety of resources are available in the Circuit Court of Cook County to help people without lawyers. For more than a decade, the CBF has worked with the Circuit Court, several pro bono and legal aid organizations, the CBA, and other stakeholders to develop and nurture a network of more than 10 legal advice desks to serve people without lawyers in the Daley Center and other court-based locations. The CBF provides key funding and other support for these desks because they provide critical help for people coming into the courts on their own.

An advice desk lawyer can triage the situation, give brief legal advice and assistance, and make a referral to pro bono and legal aid lawyers when necessary and available. Judges, clerks and other court staff are able to refer people who need help to an appropriate help desk, if one is available; to broader legal services, through the CARPLS legal hotline; or to Illinois Legal Aid Online, where people can learn more about their legal problem.

Rising Numbers of Self-Represented Litigants

The critical help provided in the Resource Center and in the courthouse is more important now than ever, as the number of people coming to court without a lawyer continues to rise. Last year, 93 counties in Illinois reported that 50% or more of civil cases have at least one unrepresented litigant. According to a recent survey by the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, 73% of circuit clerks and 69% of civil judges see unrepresented litigants daily. National research reports that 75% of unrepresented litigants want an attorney but cannot find or afford one. These numbers highlight the critical importance of free and affordable legal help both inside and outside the courthouse.

An Important Milestone

The CBF’s vision of a truly user-friendly and accessible justice system has long included a central starting point in the Daley Center where people without lawyers can receive help navigating a complex system as well as brief legal advice, related assistance, and referrals to other services. Thanks to the leadership of Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans and our other partners, three years ago the Center opened to play a critical role and starting point for people without lawyers. With our partners, the CBF will continue to build upon this important starting point to increase and improve the services that are available for people without lawyers.