It was 6 ½ Years Ago Today…

Granted, that is not as catchy as the Beatles’ lyrics in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But in access to justice circles, it was a pretty big deal.

It was June 13, 2012, to be exact, when the Illinois Supreme Court entered the order creating the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, and what has happened since that time is nothing short of amazing.

Prior to 2012, the Supreme Court for years had been very supportive of pro bono and legal aid efforts when proposals were brought to them. However, it lacked a structure to focus on the many things the Court itself could do to make the system more user-friendly and accessible for the growing numbers of people coming into the courts without lawyers.

Through the Circuit Court Pro Se Advisory Committee, the CBF for several years had been tackling these issues at the local level, but it became increasingly clear that many issues for people without lawyers in the courts really required statewide leadership from the Supreme Court to make an impact. The Pro Se Advisory Committee made a proposal that the Supreme Court form a body to focus on these issues that require statewide changes, and with the help of other partners and the leadership of the Court, that became the Commission on Access to Justice.

With the Supreme Court as an active partner and the CBF providing the initial core staffing on a pro bono basis, the Commission started improving the system right out of the gate. One of the Commission’s first initiatives was to address a major gap in the system by creating a rule and process for standardized court forms in the Illinois courts. Illinois at that time was one of the few states that did not have standardized court forms, creating a number of unnecessary barriers for people without lawyers. Today, the Illinois Supreme Court now has a growing library of approved standardized forms, and many more in the works.

Other highlights were the development and implementation of the first statewide strategy for ensuring people who do not speak English have access to the courts, and a comprehensive training and professional development curriculum for judges and court personnel on working effectively with unrepresented litigants.

Perhaps the greatest impact of the Commission was to  inspire the Court to create a new Access to Justice Division within the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. The Division now has a tremendous staff dedicated to these issues working hand in hand with the Commission and has become a national model for other courts.

There remains much more work to do, and the Commission recently adopted an ambitious strategic plan to guide its efforts through 2020. Guiding principles include Plain Language, Process Simplification, Procedural Fairness, Equal Access and Continuous Improvement.

In these first 6 ½ years, the Commission and the Supreme Court already have made major improvements in access to justice and have set a path towards even greater impact going forward.