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The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) recently hosted a webinar highlighting the role of non-lawyer navigator programs in state courts.  Rob Wall, an NCSC Senior Court Management Consultant, served as the moderator.

The session kicked off with Georgetown Justice Lab Senior Fellow Mary McClymont  discussing key findings and takeaways of her report, “Nonlawyer Navigators in State Courts: Part II — An Update.” 

Key Findings from Mary McClymont’s Report

McClymont explained that non-lawyer navigator programs in state courts are initiatives that use individuals without formal legal credentials, who are not court staff, to provide direct person-to-person assistance to court users. These programs operate within a court setting and focus on helping self-represented litigants address civil legal problems. Navigators help increase access to justice by assisting court users in navigating legal processes, completing forms accurately, and connecting them with relevant resources.

Navigator programs can be categorized into two main types: those supervised by court staff, which may involve volunteers or AmeriCorps members working on various case types, and those developed and run by nonprofits. Nonprofit-led programs often use paid staff and volunteers, concentrating on specific case types. 

The programs can include in-person, remote, or hybrid models, with a growing emphasis on incorporating remote services, in part due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Approximately half of the states in this country now have navigator programs, and further expansion is anticipated.

McClymont noted that support from state access to justice commissions and administrative court leadership plays a crucial role in the success of these programs, as does financial backing, especially from federal resources like AmeriCorps funding. 

Insights from Navigator Programs Across States

Sheriece M. Perry, Esq., Director of Court Services in Massachusetts, Robert Southers, Managing Attorney of the Franklin County Municipal Self-Help Center and Dispute Resolution Department, and Stacey Weiler, Director of Grants and Access to Justice, Illinois Bar Foundation, shared their experiences with navigator programs. 

The Massachusetts navigator program, Perry explained, began by relying on law students but grew to engage a diverse group of volunteers, including high schoolers and retired judges. The program now serves a broad spectrum of court users, offering both in-person and remote assistance; in July and August they served over 11,000 people. They focus on finding the next generation of social justice warriors while acknowledging that they will never be able to match the number of people who need civil legal services with a lawyer. 

Southers said Ohio’s program focuses on eviction court and the self-help center, particularly in a high-volume court setting. The program involves students serving as navigators in the self-help center, providing assistance to court users, usually two students per semester. The program also includes a newer initiative called the Eviction Prevention Coordinators, or eviction court navigators. These coordinators are the first point of contact for individuals arriving at the eviction court, which handles a significant number of cases each morning. The program is on track to serve about 10,000 people this year, which represents approximately 99% of the eviction docket, demonstrating its significant impact in the first year.

In Illinois, Weiler noted, the program is an AmeriCorps-funded initiative that collaborates with various entities, including the Illinois Bar Foundation, the Chicago Bar Foundation, and the Illinois Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Justice. The Illinois Justice Corps operates with court-based supervisors and partners to tailor its services to the specific needs and resources of each circuit. The program employs AmeriCorps members, known as Illinois Justice Corps Fellows, who volunteer for a year-long term of service. The program also recruits, trains, and supports student volunteers who make a shorter-term commitment.

The webinar offered invaluable insights into the ever-evolving landscape of non-lawyer navigator programs in state courts, demonstrating the diverse models they employ and challenges they face. You can view the program here.