Each day for the past 10 years, law student volunteers from IIT Chicago-Kent have staffed the Self-Help Web Center (SHWC) on the sixth floor of Chicago’s Richard J. Daley Center, helping to provide guidance and assistance to thousands of pro se litigants as they navigate their way through the Cook County court system.
The idea for the SHWC grew out of a study of low-income and self-represented litigants conducted across five different court systems in the United States between 1999 and 2001 by the Center for Access to Justice and Technology.
That study, “Meeting the Needs of Self-Represented Litigants,” led by CAJT director Ron Staudt, showed that for many people, merely filling out the forms required in today’s courts presented a daunting hurdle which was difficult to overcome on their own. Given the completion of the study around the same time the Internet was coming into widespread use, it seemed the logical next step was to put legal information online in order to make it more accessible to the public
Dorothy Brown, Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County; Timothy Evans, Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County; Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO); and Chicago-Kent’s Center for Access to Justice and Technology (CAJT), collaborated in 2004 to launch SHWC. It uses computer workstations and trained law student volunteers to assist visitors who cannot afford a lawyer. Operating as a starting point for any pro se litigant needing assistance, the SHWC helps visitors locate legal information online via ILAO’s site, directs them to other desks and legal aid organizations at the Daley Center, and assists them with filling out various online civil law forms.
“The SHWC makes it possible for the Clerk’s Office to make available a service that helps court patrons feel more comfortable navigating the court and handling certain legal concerns on their own without having to hire an attorney. This is access to justice personified, and the Clerk’s Office is a strong proponent of access to justice. In general, the education and guidance provided by the SHWC helps alleviate some of the apprehension self-represented litigants experience in the court environment that many people find intimidating,” said Brown.
The SHWC was the first court-based web center in Illinois and the only help desk which combined online forms and information with volunteer law student guides. The SHWC has seen tremendous growth since its founding, helping approximately 1,600 users in 2005; 3,400 users in 2010; and 5,195 users in 2013.
“We know that technology to improve access to justice is much more effective if human beings assist others to use it to solve their problems. The Chicago-Kent student guides at the Self-Help Web Center are a critical part of the new tool kit to reduce barriers to justice for low income people,” said Staudt.
Originally offering one customized form, a basic online version of Illinois’ dissolution of marriage form, the success of the SHWC amplified the huge need for automated, online forms for low income litigants, and helped spur the creation of the Access to Justice (A2J) Author® software platform.
“The original idea was just to use design principles to see if we could solve the problems of self-represented litigants in courts. One of the solutions presented was to build some sort of software solution, which was the dissolution of marriage form, and after that we decided to build a tool that would let us build more of these tools. That tool was A2J Author®,” said Staudt.
Chicago-Kent’s CAJT and the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) began development on A2J Author® in 2004, and the first version of the program was launched in 2005. Three subsequent updates to the software have been released in an ongoing process of improvement of the program for use by low income litigants and legal aid organizations across the United States and abroad.
Building on this intellectual groundwork, in 2010 the Center for Access to Justice and Technology launched the Access to Justice Practicum course at Chicago-Kent around the A2J Author® software. Given the Center’s unique position in the legal aid community, and recognizing the ever-increasing impact of all forms of technology on the legal profession, Staudt and his team identified a vacuum in legal education and set out to remedy it.
Students in the Practicum course research a current access to justice issue, engage with self-represented litigants at the SHWC, and create guided interviews in A2J Author®. The practicum course has quickly become recognized as an innovative leader in legal education, winning plaudits and awards and sending many of its alumni into new, innovative legal positions both in and outside of the legal aid community.
A new program modeled on the CAJT’s practicum, the “Access to Justice Clinical Course Project,” was launched in 2013 at six law schools across the country. Greatly successful in its first iteration, the CAJT is exploring ways to expand the program in coming years.
Today, the law student volunteers at the SHWC assist visitors with more than 50 different, online, Illinois civil law forms. All new forms currently are created by ILAO (many more customized forms are created by other state-based legal aid groups) on an ongoing, as-need basis and then posted to the ILAO website, where each can be found.
Looking ahead, Ms. Brown’s vision for the future is for the SHWC “to assist court patrons to understand and utilize the many technology based services we offer as the Clerk’s Office progresses towards the future of a “green” and paperless court system. I envision the SHWC assisting patrons with better understanding all of the E-Court initiatives taking place and planned in the Clerk’s Office. The center could expand its instructions to customers as the Clerk’s Office’s enhances its website with available internet customer service programs, such as the Online Traffic Ticket System, SmartForms (online preparation of Order of Protection forms), Mortgage Foreclosure Surplus Search, and Unclaimed Child Support Check Search. ”
The SHWC continues to be staffed by Chicago-Kent students, and is open year round. For more information, or with any questions, the CAJT can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.