The professional lawyer performs pro bono service. Pro Bono Publico means “for the public good.” We have been exhorted to live out these words since law school. And for good reason. It is estimated that Illinois’ pro bono legal service programs are only able to serve one out of ten eligible clients. The remaining nine individuals go without legal representation. This leaves too many Illinois residents without effective representation in the legal arena, undermining the notion that we all have equal access to justice in our state.
Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride and his 11 member Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice (“ATJ Commission”) are taking it upon themselves to initiate new programs, task forces and rule changes to provide equal access to justice for all. (The Chair of our Professionalism Commission, Judge Debra Walker, is also a member of the ATJ Commission.) Such considerable aspirations do not materialize overnight, but step by significant step, the ATJ Commission is moving our state towards that reality.
Created in June 2012, the ATJ Commission has gained the support of almost 300 volunteer lawyers, judges, clerks, law students, social service providers and others who design and implement initiatives to make courts more accessible and to bring legal services to the unrepresented. For example, the ATJ Commission and its staff are working to establish a system of standardized court forms to provide a convenient and hassle-free environment to file less complex legal matters. I recall as a practicing trial lawyer the challenges of navigating bewildering differences in paper forms across different courts around the state; I can only imagine the frustration for non-lawyers.
Language also has been a barrier. It is presently estimated that more than 1.5 million Illinois residents who have limited English language skills are unable to communicate or understand the judicial system without significant language assistance. Consequently, the ATJ Commission has helped create a language access committee to assist those in the courtroom who are unable to speak or understand the English language.
The ATJ Commission also is working on a program to train judges and courtroom personnel in appropriate interaction with the unrepresented without unintentionally providing prohibited legal advice. To bring more helping hands to assist in the courts, effective July 1, 2013, the Illinois Supreme Court amended S.Ct. Rule 711 to permit law students to provide pro bono legal services once they have completed one-half of their law school credits. A Deans’ Advisory committee has been created to effectively implement this rule. Additionally, the Illinois Justice Corps, an innovative program in which college students assist unrepresented individuals in organizing information and understanding the legal process, has been expanded by the ATJ Commission.
As evidence of its proactive creativity, the ATJ Commission was responsible for the passage of the Civil Access to Justice Act. Signed into law by Governor Quinn on August 15, 2013, the Civil Access to Justice Act establishes a statewide hotline and a network of associated legal services for military veterans and personnel. The law also provides for a pilot civil Gideon-based program affording varying levels of assistance to impoverished litigants in landlord/tenant disputes throughout the state. Several other provisions of the bill include streamlining the process for fee waiver petitions for legal aid clients and court sponsored pro bono programs, and encouraging county law libraries to create self-help centers and other legal assistance resources to the public. Funding for these programs will be supported in part by a $10 fee imposed on a party’s filing of its first pleading in civil cases.
In the coming year, the ATJ Commission plans to implement pilot civil Gideon programs in each of the five appellate court districts across the state, providing legal assistance in landlord/tenant disputes. It also plans to develop strategic task forces in the areas of elder abuse, mental health, small claims/collections, juvenile law, disability, immigration-related issues, and domestic violence, all with the purpose of providing pro bono support and more equal access to the judicial system.
Engaging and leveraging pro bono to address the legal needs of low-income and vulnerable litigants is the subject of the Second Annual Access to Justice Conference that will take place on Wednesday, October 23, 2013 from 1:30 pm to 5:00 pm at the Thompson Center in Chicago. The keynote address will be delivered by Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. If you’d like to attend, email firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire whether space is still available. It would be great to see you there.
The ATJ Commission has been in existence for a little over a year, but it already has made significant strides in bringing legal services to the unrepresented. That is leadership at work.