Future Law

Illinois Courts Receive $100k Grant to Expand Access to Justice in Illinois

Justice for All grantThe Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) announced last week that it received a $100,000 grant from the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) as part of the Justice for All project. The Illinois Court’s Access to Justice Commission will use the funds to support strategies to expand access to legal services in the state.

Justice for All grants were created to implement two advanced resolutions: meaningful access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs and for traditional and non-traditional stakeholders to collaborate to develop a comprehensive approach to achieve meaningful access to justice. Illinois is one of only 14 states to receive the grant.

The Access to Justice Commission applied for the grant with support from Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier, AOIC Director Marcia M. Meis, The Chicago Bar Foundation, The Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, The Illinois Equal Justice Foundation: Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network, Metropolitan Family Services, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Chicago, Kane County Law Library Self-Help Center, Illinois Legal Aid Online, Prairie State Legal Services and Legal Aid Chicago.

We spoke with Alison Spanner, Assistant Director of the AOIC’s Access to Justice Division, about how the funds will be used to advance equal access in Illinois.

When was the Justice for All grant awarded?

The grant term began in October and will run until October of 2020. The grant will be used to conduct a comprehensive and critical analysis of statewide resources and justice gaps in Illinois and to develop a workable action plan for bridging the gap between legal needs and legal resources.

Will the Access to Justice Commission collaborate with the organizations that supported the grant application?

We will be creating a Justice for All Advisory Committee which will include representatives from all levels of the state courts and legal community throughout Illinois.

Will your staff expand based on the grant?

We’ve identified two consultants to work on this grant. The first consultant will focus on data gathering and analysis, and our second consultant will execute regional focus groups across the state, administer and analyze surveys, and draft our action plan.

Are there 2-3 initiatives that you’ll focus on first?

Illinois justice partners have created targeted asset maps in the past to visualize the distribution of court-based resources related to language access, self-help and legal aid. However, the existing asset maps are outdated, narrow in scope and don’t include the ancillary resources that are a key part of access to justice and have historically been underutilized. With this grant, we will be updating and expanding on the existing work to better visualize how court-based resources relate to other service providers including, but not limited to, community-based organizations, medical-legal partnerships, social service providers, community-based legal clinics and mediation services.

Based on the results of the inventory and asset mapping, the Justice for All Advisory Committee will then identify specific community areas throughout the state to conduct focus groups with service providers and community members. All too often, decisions are made without stopping to listen to community members and to bring the user voice and perspective into the decision-making process.

We hope to supplement the focus group research by surveying front line clerks, self-help center staff and JusticeCorps fellows who routinely meet with self-represented litigants, to gain their perspectives on the most significant challenges faced by litigants once they’re inside the courthouse.

We anticipate this process will help us identify common pain points that would be prioritized as we move toward action planning.

How will the grant increase equal access to justice in Illinois and build stronger community trust in the courts?

Self-help and legal aid serve only those who know their problem is legal and have the capacity to find a solution. Legal researcher Rebecca Sandefur has written that most legal issues are never reviewed by an attorney or make it to court for resolution.1 Fundamental legal issues affecting someone’s daily life functions—such as housing, personal safety, divorce, child custody, employment and debt—are going unaddressed.

We must recognize that legal needs don’t exist in a vacuum and that community organizations are vitally important partners and entry points in the legal ecosystem. This grant will allow us to focus on possible solutions to this problem that include innovation and better coordination among stakeholders and communities, especially in the areas of law where the stakes are highest and legal help is most out of reach.

[1] Rebecca L. Sandefur, “Access to What?” Daedalus, The Journal of American Academy of Arts & Sciences 148 (1) Winter 2019: 49.

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