All Sally Smith wants is to be heard by the judge and the bank. Sally received court papers this month that the bank filed a foreclosure case against her. She lost her job six months ago and has not been able to find enough work to make her monthly mortgage payment. She has a good job lead and thinks if she gets the job and the bank allows her to refinance her mortgage, she can make the monthly payments work.
When Sally walks into the courthouse, she is anxious. She does not want to lose her home that she has lived in for 15 years. Sally goes through the courthouse metal detector and then cannot find anyone to help her figure out where to go. Someone said something about needing to file an appearance in the clerk’s office, but she does not know what an appearance is or how to file it and the court papers say to go to courtroom 1201. Sally is getting even more nervous because she does not know what to do. When she gets to the courtroom, she sees some people with lawyers and some without lawyers. Sally notices that the people without lawyers, like her, are confused by what the judge and bank’s lawyer are asking. She panics.
Sally’s story is not unique. Like Sally, people who enter the courthouse are often facing distressing situations like losing their homes. They want to be heard and have their “day in court,” but are scared and confused by the court process. So, how can courthouse employees make sure all people who walk through the courthouse doors feel heard?
Walk in Their Shoes
The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism’s Courthouse Professionalism training begins to answer this question. This half-day training called Walk in Their Shoes provides an opportunity for courthouse staff (judges, lawyers, court reporters, bailiffs, clerks, interpreters, sheriffs) to consider its service from the perspective of a courthouse patron. If a patron is not heard and treated professionally, they usually walk away with a sense that the justice system is not just.
On June 8, 2018, courthouse personnel from both Boone and Winnebago counties took part in the Commission’s Courthouse Professionalism training to reflect and improve on their patrons’ courthouse experiences. In 2017 alone, over 77,000 cases were filed in these two counties. After Appellate Judge for the Second District, Judge Kathryn Zenoff, the Chair of the Commission, Judge Debra Walker, and the Executive Director of the Commission, Jayne Reardon welcomed and set the stage for those in attendance, Boone and Winnebago county courthouse staffs kicked off the training with a funny skit that focused on unhelpful behavior by court personnel that led to a patron, like Sally, being confused and not heard.
After the laughter subsided from the parody on courthouse professionalism, the Commission staff debriefed the skit with all in attendance. The group discussed that without a lawyer, most patrons would find the court experience confusing and unjust. Therefore, it is even more important for court personnel to listen to and hear the patron. It may be the patron’s only interaction with the justice system and what their perspective of the system will be going forward. So, why not make that positive rather than negative?
Active Listening Leads to Being Heard
The large group then broke down into smaller groups to discuss how they can deliver the best possible justice to all those who enter the courthouse. The overriding theme from the small group discussions was making sure the patron was heard. Many ideas were discussed, and excellent points made. For example, it is not about needing more money as it does not cost anything additional to simply listen and hear a patron. Also, active listening was stressed.
Listening is an active process. It requires shutting out other sounds and being open to what the other person is saying without judgement. It is not about finishing the speaker’s sentence for them or helping them find the words. Instead, it is about being in the present moment and the listener giving their full attention to the speaker. This is not how we typically communicate and therefore why court personnel must try do this with patrons. As national recognized meditation teacher, Elesa Commerse says, “This concentrated presence (deep listening) helps us feel valued.”
Think about what a difference it would make if people left the courthouse feeling listened to and valued. It has the potential to increase civility, professionalism, and justice to name a few. As the Boone and Winnebago court personnel were asked at the training, ask yourself, “What can be changed in your workday that will improve what you are able to achieve and the justice you deliver to the public?” Court patrons like Sally will be glad you did.
If you are interested in scheduling the Commission’s courthouse professionalism training at your courthouse, please contact Professionalism Counsel, Mark Palmer. Also, share your thoughts in the comments below about how to make the courthouse easier to access.