Spotlight on Pro Bono: The 17th Judicial Circuit Court’s Domestic Violence Pro Bono Order of Protection Project
By Wendy Hinton Vaughn
November is the time of year when we take time to reflect and give thanks for all the things for which we are grateful. I am grateful for the innovative programs of the 17th Judicial Circuit’s Domestic Violence Coordinated Courts (DVCC) and wish to shine a light on the great work done by the Domestic Violence Pro Bono Order of Protection Project.
The Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women has recognized the 17th Judicial Circuit’s DVCC as one of 13 national mentor courts. The DVCC has developed a number of projects and practices designed to enhance informed judicial decision-making, hold perpetrators of violence accountable, and increase safety for survivors of abuse.
DVCC Presiding Judge Rosemary Collins and DVCC Associate Judge Joseph Bruce understood that without legal representation, many survivors of domestic violence drop their order of protection matters when they learn that their alleged abusers have hired attorneys. Petitioners who represent themselves seldom understand evidentiary rules and are sometimes unable to present their case effectively when the respondents have counsel. To bridge this gap and increase access to justice for survivors of domestic violence, the DVCC collaborated with Prairie State Legal Services’ Rockford office to create the Domestic Violence Pro Bono Order of Protection Project.
The Domestic Violence Pro Bono Order of Protection Project pairs pro bono attorneys with petitioners who are requesting domestic violence orders of protection in cases where the opposing party has counsel. Legal Advocates from Remedies Renewing Lives, the domestic violence services agency serving Winnebago County, refers petitioners to Prairie State Legal Services once the respondent’s counsel files an appearance or attends the first court date in the order of protection case. Managing attorney Kimberly Thielbar and pro bono coordinator Wendy Crouch conduct conflict checks and pair petitioners with trained pro bono attorneys who will represent the petitioner at the contested order of protection hearing. In the event of a conflict of interest, Prairie State refers petitioners to Northern Illinois University College of Law’s Civil Justice Clinic for representation by a licensed law student, under the supervision of Wendy Hinton Vaughn.
In recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness month, Prairie State Legal Services hosted a continuing legal education program to train current and new pro bono attorneys for the project on Oct. 30. The CLE included presentations from Megan Brechon, executive director of Children’s Safe Harbor; professors Robert Jones and Wendy Vaughn of Northern Illinois University College of Law; and a panel of judges who hear order of protection matters in the DVCC. After the training, the Domestic Violence Pro Bono Attorney Project hosted a reception to recognize the hard work and to thank all of the pro attorneys who have served in the project over the last two years.
I am grateful for all of the pro bono attorneys in the 17th Judicial Circuit who take time out of their busy schedules to increase access to justice and enhance the safety of domestic violence survivors.