Courts and People without Lawyers

Our legal system was designed for a different era, one where almost everyone in court was represented by a lawyer. However, with increasing frequency, the new normal is for people to appear in court without a lawyer by their side. National studies show that more than 75% of civil court cases have at least one unrepresented party, making it more important than ever to make sure the legal system works for everyone. The CBF’s court advocacy program works to reduce barriers and simplify procedures for the tens of thousands of people in Cook County who will go it alone in court every year.

The CBF works closely with the state and federal courts, the legal community, and legal and pro bono partners to make the court system more friendly, accessible, and fair for everyone. Learn more about our efforts to help people without lawyers by:

Connecting People with Self-Help and Referral Information
Illinois JusticeCorps
Since 2012, the CBF has helped place student volunteers and fellows in Cook County courthouses through the Illinois JusticeCorps program, with the goal of making the courts more welcoming and less intimidating for people without lawyers. JusticeCorps currently operates in three Cook County locations—the Richard J. Daley Center, the Sixth Municipal District Courthouse in Markham, and the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse—and ten other sites across Illinois through a partnership with the Illinois Bar Foundation, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, and the Serve Illinois Commission. In 2018, JusticeCorps volunteers helped over 57,000 people in Cook County navigate the courthouse, prepare and file court papers, and connect with legal aid and other resources.

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Referral Sheets
People in court often want help, but don’t know how to connect with the various resources and legal aid organizations scattered throughout the courthouse and city. While judges and court staff want to make helpful referrals, it can be challenging for them to keep track of the latest information. Seeing both a need and an opportunity to help, the CBF began working with its partners to systematically create, share, and update referral sheets that streamline and improve the process for connecting people with free and affordable legal help. View the referral sheets here.

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Online Resources and Information
Technology can allow people without lawyers to quickly and easily find information and resources on their computers and phones at any time. However, the rapid growth of online resources has also made it harder to identify the most relevant or highest quality information, forms, and other tools. The CBF works closely with Illinois Legal Aid Online and other partners in the legal community to develop and update trusted online resources for people without lawyers and for the broader legal community.

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Training for Court Staff
The growing number of people in court without lawyers has significantly altered many courthouse dynamics. Recognizing the changing landscape and its impact, the CBF works with the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts and other stakeholders to offer training programs for clerks, law librarians, and court staff on resources and best practices for helping people without lawyers.

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Supporting Court-Based Legal Advice and Pro Bono Programs
Resource Center for People without Lawyers
In 2014, the CBF and the Circuit Court of Cook County established a dedicated Resource Center for People without Lawyers at the Richard J. Daley Center. The Resource Center is a centralized hub of information and services for people without lawyers, offering a supportive space to help them navigate the courthouse. Services range from navigational assistance to legal and supportive service referrals to free legal consultations. The Center is staffed jointly by Illinois JusticeCorps fellows and volunteers, legal aid and pro bono attorneys, and court staff who work collaboratively to triage, refer, and serve nearly 40,000 court patrons each year.

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Court-Based Help Desks
A little legal help can go a long way. That’s the philosophy behind the network of help desks based in the courthouses throughout Cook County and offering same-day brief advice to people without lawyers. Offering everything from quick advice before court to document preparation assistance and limited scope representation, these help desks are a lifeline for the many litigants who would otherwise not have an opportunity to speak with a lawyer about their legal problem. In addition to financial support, the CBF also works collaboratively with the State and Federal courts and the network of help desks to coordinate referrals and services throughout the legal system and to identify and address systemic challenges.

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Court-Based Pro Bono Programs
The CBF works with its many partners in the legal community to identify service gaps and establish new programs to address changing and emerging community needs. During the foreclosure crisis, the CBF played a lead role in helping to develop and support the Circuit Court of Cook County’s Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program. More recently, the CBF partnered with court and legal aid partners to launch a new pro bono program for families struggling to secure legal help for their loved ones during a mental health crisis and helped the Northern District of Illinois’s Pro Bono Committee update its online resources for pro bono attorneys.

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Advocating for User-Friendly Court Policies and Procedures
Circuit Court of Cook County Pro Se Advisory Committee
In 2009, the Circuit Court and the CBF jointly created the Pro Se Advisory Committee as a way of bringing together different parts of the legal community including judges, lawyers, clerks, sheriffs, law librarians, and court staff to support the growing number of people going to court without lawyers and to address some of the related challenges. The Committee works to improve coordination between stakeholders, to identify and address new challenges, and to develop and disseminate resources for people without lawyers. The current co-chairs are Judge Sharon Sullivan, Presiding Judge for the County Division, and Judge Alison Conlon of the Circuit Court.

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Access to Justice Commission
Recognizing that many of the challenges facing people without lawyers could only be solved through statewide solutions, the CBF worked with the Pro Se Advisory Committee on a proposal for what would eventually become the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, established in 2013. The CBF works closely with the Commission and the Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Division on a variety of statewide projects including remote access, standardized forms, electronic filing, language access, limited scope representation, and more.

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