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Land of Lincoln Legal Aid Attorneys Saved More Than 633 Hours from Remote Court Appearances, Access to Justice Commission Found

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The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice (ATJ Commission) recently issued a report documenting the cost and time savings of remote court appearances in southern Illinois’ First Judicial Circuit.

The report, which was written by Sarah Song of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, stems from a pilot project aimed at reducing the “geographic constraints” of providing free civil legal services to low-income residents in the First Circuit and assessing the impact of remote appearances on courts.

The ATJ Commission provided grant funding to the First Circuit and Land of Lincoln Legal Aid’s Southern Regional Office in Carbondale to support infrastructure and technology updates needed for remote appearances.

In exchange, judges in the First Circuit agreed to “liberally allow Land of Lincoln lawyers to appear remotely” (in accordance with Illinois Supreme Court Rules and Policies addressing remote proceedings) and Land of Lincoln attorneys agreed to appear remotely on behalf of clients.

Both agreed to provide the ATJ Commission with data on the impact of remote court appearances during the pilot program.

Why is this important?

The need for accessible justice options in the First Circuit is particularly acute. The First Circuit includes nine rural counties in southern Illinois where the poverty level is higher than the state average, courthouses are widespread, and access to affordable transportation is scarce, the report says.

Moreover, the number of registered lawyers in the First Circuit has been dropping and none of the counties have added a new lawyer since 2018, according to the report and the Illinois ARDC.

Land of Lincoln, which is funded by the Legal Services Corporation, works to fill this gap. It provides free civil legal services to low-income and senior residents of central and southern Illinois, including the First Circuit.

“[The ATJ Commission] was keenly interested in encouraging remote court appearances in rural and geographically dispersed areas of the state and measuring the impact remote court proceedings could have on reducing the barriers rural communities experience in accessing justice,” Song wrote in the report.

Findings from the pilot program

Data from the two-year remote court appearance pilot program—which ran from July 2021 to June 2023—was gathered every six months. The data was measured against two periods: pre-pandemic (Sept 2019 – February 2020) and pre-pilot launch (January – June 2021).

While data from the courts was impeded by unanticipated issues including the lingering impact of COVID-19, amendments to the statewide Manual on Recordkeeping, and variances between data collection and reporting, Land of Lincoln provided data regarding its in-person and remote court appearances.

During the pilot, between 50% and 70% of appearances by Land of Lincoln attorneys in the First Circuit were conducted remotely via phone or video. The majority were case management and status proceedings, while motions were split evenly between in-person and remote, and trials were primarily held in person, the report says.

For comparison, during the pre-pandemic period, Land of Lincoln attorneys had zero remote and 67 in-person court appearances in the First Circuit.

Importantly, the ATJ Commission found that, during the pilot, Land of Lincoln attorneys appeared remotely for 467 proceedings, saving 633.5 hours of travel time to courthouses, 18,432 miles of driving, and $11,626.83 in costs.

“Remote appearances have allowed our attorneys to appear in multiple courthouses in the same day, which has been difficult in the past due to the size of our service territory,” Diane Goffinet, Managing Attorney at Land of Lincoln in Carbondale, told us in a 2021 interview regarding the pilot program. “It has also allowed us to have additional time in the office, which is used for interviewing new clients, working on cases, etc.”

She noted that a case management conference that used to take two-and-a-half hours could be completed remotely in 15 minutes, providing Land of Lincoln attorneys “a tremendous amount of ‘found time’ that we didn’t have before.”

Using ‘found time’ from remote court appearances

How can Land of Lincoln lawyers use the 633.5 hours of “found time”?

Song writes that this extra time could translate into “providing full legal representation to 50 additional survivors of domestic violence seeking an order of protection” or “converted to providing legal advice and brief services to over 205 low-income tenants facing homelessness.”

In addition to “found time” for lawyers, Land of Lincoln reported that their clients “highly valued” the convenience of being able to handle their court matters remotely and on breaks from work, without missing workdays.

“The project has been a catalyst for new, inventive thinking concerning court appearances and in turn has allowed substantial savings to litigants and attorneys alike who may appear remotely rather than travel to the various courthouses of our circuit,” Saline County Associate Judge Todd Lambert said in a press release.

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