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Spotlight on Pro Bono: Use of Circle Process to Expand Access to Justice

By Sandra Crawford, JD, Mediator, Collaborative Process Professional, Trained Circle Keeper

No matter where on this planet our ancestors hailed from, it is safe to say that at some point in history all of them sat around a fire either for heat, nourishment, storytelling, entertainment, community, support, and most likely to do some problem solving. From these ancient beginnings has grown what is now generally known as the Circle Process — a problem resolving or peacemaking model that can be used in a variety of settings for a variety of purposes. “The philosophy of Circle acknowledges that we are all in need of help and that helping others helps us at the same time." The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis, page 6. (Hereinafter "the Little Book").

There are various types of circles. All share key elements and draw on indigenous tribal traditions mixed with contemporary concepts of democracy, inclusiveness, and multi-cultural integration. The shared key elements of all circles are: Ceremony, Guidelines, Talking Piece, Keeping/Facilitation, and Consensus/Decision Making. Briefly, the different types are:

Healing Circles, Talking Circles, Understanding Circles,Sentencing and Reintegration Circles (in the context of the criminal justice system), Celebration Circles, and Community-Building Circles. The purpose of each type of circle is to allow space for expression, understanding, support, healing, and growth. In some circles, but not all, consensus building and decision-making are also a stated objective. This article will take a brief look at how Talking Circles might be used to address a growing concern for access to justice and the rise of self-represented litigants in Illinois.

As defined by circle practitioner and author, Kay Pranis, in her work the Little Book, Talking Circles are formed to allow participants to explore a particular issue or topic from many different perspectives. "Talking Circles do not attempt to reach consensus on the topic. Rather, they allow all voices to be respectfully heard and offer participants diverse perspectives to stimulate their reflections." A Circle of Understanding is a Talking Circle focused on understanding some aspect of a challenging circumstance, difficult situation, or conflict[1]. A Circle of Understanding does not need to reach consensus or make decisions. "Its purpose is to develop a more complete picture of the context or reason for a particular event or behavior." (See page 14 of the Little Book).

As applied to finding innovative ways to expand access to justice, a Talking Circle might be convened. This type of circle would allow legal practitioners, jurists, community leaders, and other stakeholders to share, in a confidential and supportive setting, insights into the challenges of creating sustainable solutions to allow greater access to justice for who feel disenfranchised when it comes to the legal system. Creating room for mindful facilitation of this type of practitioner-to-stakeholder sharing may return benefits when trying to move past merely “admiring the problem” to a better exploration and development of different innovative models of practice to promote greater access to and satisfaction with legal representation and the legal system. "Circles are a storytelling process. They use the history and experience of everyone in the Circle to understand the situation and look for a good way forward — not through lecturing or giving advice or telling others what to do, but through sharing stories of struggle, pain, joy, despair, and triumph. Personal narratives are the source of insight and wisdom in Circles.” (Page 40 of the Little Book).

With the reported increase in the number of people choosing not to retain counsel and instead representing themselves in Illinois (see accompanying report from the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts giving a snapshot of unrepresented litigants in the State), the resulting impact on how lawyers practice law cannot be ignored. Participation in Talking or Understanding Circles would allow lawyers and other stakeholders a means to explore how the self-representing trend may be addressed and what innovative models of delivery of legal services may be adapted by the profession to continue to insure the greatest level of access to justice through the assistance of licensed, qualified lawyers.


[1] There are two types of “conflicts.” (1) “Anabolic” conflict: typified by open discourse, honesty, investigation and introspection of key processes and players, acceptance of diverse ideas, and collaboration. (2) “Catabolic” conflict: typified by chronic and unresolved issues of confusion, role identity, imbalance of power and duties, perceived injustices issues, a history of improperly handed disputes and exclusion. For more on “Anabolic” and “Catabolic” conflict see: “Good and Bad Conflict” by Ken Johnson, Mediate.com.

Posted on Apr 11, 2017 by Sara Anderson | Comments (0)
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