CHICAGO - When it comes to providing access to justice to those who can’t afford lawyers, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride said “face it, we can always do better.”
Despite all of the great judges and attorneys in Illinois, Kilbride on Wednesday told attendants of the second annual conference of the court’s Access to Justice Commission that the justice system continues to face two emerging problems.
Kilbride said these problems – an exploding number of unrepresented individuals in courtrooms across the state and that a large number of these people do not speak English – spurred the court to create the Commission on Access to Justice last year.
Wednesday’s conference, which took place at the James R. Thompson Center auditorium in Chicago, brought out more than 300 attendants, according to the commission’s chairman, Jeffrey D. Colman, who noted this year’s attendance doubled last year’s event.
While the two problems Kilbride mentioned still exist in court systems across the nation, Colman, a partner at Jenner & Block LLP, said Illinois has made significant steps in addressing them.
Since the commission was created in June 2012, Colman said it has recommended and the high court has approved the formation of committees charged with coming up with standardized forms and language access plans, as well as changes to court rules dealing with pro bono work.
None of this, Colman said, would have happened without the commitment of the Supreme Court justices, all seven of whom attended Wednesday’s conference that included a keynote speech from Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama.
Stevenson referred to Illinois as “a national leader” in devoting time and resources to the access to justice issue, something courts across the nation have been grappling with as the number of people who can’t afford legal representation continues to increase.
As someone who sees the problem on a daily basis through his work with the Equal Justice Initiative, which represents indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system, Stevenson gave attendants three things to think about.
First, he said, “proximity gives us power.”
“You can’t do anything about access to justice until you make a commitment to yourself to proximate, to be close to the problems,” Stevenson said.
He told attendants that he learned the importance of this during a visit to Death Row as a law school intern for an organization that represented prisoners.
He was given the task of telling a Death Row inmate he was safe from execution for at least a year and would be getting a lawyer within six months. Stevenson, however, said he was terrified because he felt unprepared to deliver the news as a law student.
But, once he shared the news, Stevenson said the prisoner grabbed his hand, got emotional and thanked him. The two went on to talk for hours, much longer than the 45 minute visit they were given, and discovered they shared the same exact birthday.
“Despite my ignorance,” Stevenson said “by being proximate, being present, I had an impact.”
When the prisoner was being led back to Death Row, he started singing the Church hymn “I’m Pressing on the Upward Way,” a song that Stevenson said “changed my relationship to the law” and made him realize how important it is for lawyers to put themselves close to the problems they seek to change.
The second thing Stevenson urged attendants at Wednesday’s conference to do is to have hope.
“Being hopeful is key,” he said, explaining that despite there often being too many problems and too little resources, attorneys need to have hope in order to help provide better access to justice to those who can’t afford representation or don’t understand the system.
Lastly, Stevenson said, attorneys need to make a commitment to do things that may make them feel uncomfortable.
Attorneys doing pro bono work may not feel prepared to handle a capital case or a case in an area of law that falls out of their expertise, but going back to his proximity point, Stevenson said “you got to be there … and then you will find a voice to make a difference.”
Wednesday’s conference also included two panel discussions, one on innovations in state court-based pro bono programs and another on how to build and improve partnerships and strategies for successful pro bono programs.
The panel on court-based pro bono programs featured Madison County Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder, Will County Associate Judge Dinah Archambeault and Chief Judge Ruben Castillo of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
Crowder discussed the Third Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee, the first state-wide committee that coordinates pro bono programs for those with limited means.
The committee gives those who can’t afford lawyers a chance to ask volunteer lawyers any questions they may have when it comes to representing themselves in court.
She said the committee is a partnership between the court system, the Madison County Bar Association, Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation and area attorneys who volunteer their time at bi-monthly legal advice clinics.
Saying that the committee has been successful, Crowder encouraged attendants of the conference to help form similar committees in their circuits.
During the same panel, Archambeault discussed Will County’s “Pro Se Day,” which she developed as a way to set aside two days per month for pro se litigants in her courtroom, and Castillo talked about the Federal Trial Bar program, the membership of which requires an obligation to do pro bono work.
Wednesday’s conference also featured the presentation of the Commission’s First Annual Service Awards.
The commission presented its “Lifetime Award” to Joseph A . Dailing, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice, and its “Beginnings Award” to Dina C. Nikitaides, who works for Illinois Legal Aid Online.