Guiding the Gatekeepers

Often, when a person goes to court without a lawyer, the first person they interact with will be a court clerk. Clerks often serve as the gatekeepers of the court, playing a pivotal role any time a litigant tries to file a document, request a court order, check in for a hearing, or pay a court fee. However, clerks often struggle to answer the cascade of questions from the growing number of people going to court on their own each year. In fact, in a 2016 survey conducted by the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, 98% of court clerks report that the presence of people without lawyers makes their jobs more complicated.

Identifying an opportunity to help, the CBF partnered with the Access to Justice Division of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts to deliver more than 20 trainings over the past two years to the 400+ staff members who work for the Circuit Clerk of Cook County. The trainings have covered topics like legal information and advice, best practices for making referrals, and e-filing for self-represented litigants. CBF staff have traveled to eight different Circuit Court locations, ensuring that clerks from each civil and criminal division were able to attend a training. For many clerks, these trainings were their first opportunity to learn about vital resources like standardized court forms, Illinois Legal Aid Online, and the network of court-based help desks.

The training partnership has provided a great opportunity to learn more about the challenges that clerks face when trying to help people without lawyers in the courthouse and the areas of greatest need. This, in turn, has informed the CBF’s ongoing work to develop more resources and to better help people without lawyers and the court partners who serve them.