By: Nina Wilson, Illinois Court Help Guide, Access to Justice Division
Other states increasingly recognize Illinois courts for their champion efforts to increase access to justice, particularly for self-represented litigants (SRLs) in civil cases. To this end, the Illinois Supreme Court chartered a Commission on Access to Justice (Commission) in 2012, and the Court’s administrative arm continues to expand programming and staff support for the Commission. Recently, staff advised a special committee of the Florida State Bar Association on best practices to create access to justice resources in their state. Some key points included the following:
Illinois has a healthy ecosystem of legal aid organizations. The Commission sees no need to reinvent the representation wheel but supports nonprofit partners in meeting different communities’ representation needs. For example, in 2021, it provided grant funding to Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, the largest nonprofit provider of civil legal services in rural southern Illinois. The grant enabled Land of Lincoln to establish a Remote Appearance Pilot Project in conjunction with the First Judicial Circuit, meaning attorneys can now appear—remotely—in multiple court proceedings, in multiple First Circuit counties, within the same day. This allows more low-income litigants to access attorneys because the attorneys do not have to funnel extensive resources simply into travel between the geographically diverse counties.
While the Remote Appearance Pilot Project expands access to traditional representation, most of the Commission’s attorney access programs exist at the crossroads of self-help and legal advice. For instance, in 2018, the Commission funded a small grants program that allowed the 22nd Judicial Circuit of Illinois to establish a successful early resolution program for divorces. The ERP empowered SRLs with no children to prove-up uncontested cases within a single day. Attorneys from the legal aid nonprofit Prairie State Legal Services reviewed the litigants’ settlement agreements to ensure all issues were resolved and the case was ready for prove up. That ERP continues to operate, and the Commission has funded other jurisdictions to adopt similar ERP models, including for couples with children.
The Commission recognizes that there is simply not enough legal aid and pro bono attorneys to allow everyone to have an attorney in their civil cases. This means that other court staff and partners are needed as human resources to assist SRLs. The Commission coordinates a Court Navigator Network to connect designated SRL point persons in courthouses statewide. Commission staff train the Network to view the Court’s Safe Harbor Policy as an opportunity; they encourage them to provide legal information to SRLs (as delineated from the unauthorized practice of law). While a court representative may review an SRL’s court form for completeness, for example, they may not share their opinion on the legal merit of any claims or counsel the SRL on what to write. Nonetheless, SRLs frequently comment that Network members are extremely helpful. Such a simple, friendly message as “You are the plaintiff. You can write your name here” goes a long way.
Additionally, in 2021, the Commission launched the groundbreaking Illinois Court Help program, an entirely remote, statewide help center that operates directly under the auspices of the Illinois Supreme Court. Staff members are known as Court Guides: specially trained staff who share legal information, procedural guidance, and other in-depth court knowledge with SRLs via phone, SMS texting, and email using a cloud-based customer support platform. They also occasionally engage with SRLs through videoconference or mail, depending on specific user needs. All services comply with the Safe Harbor Policy.
Standardized Court Forms
Commission staff furthermore administer a standardized court forms program established by Illinois Supreme Court Rule 10-101. These forms empower SRLs to prosecute and defend common types of civil court cases, including divorces, evictions, and small claims cases. Staff also maintain a smaller library of standardized forms for civil appeals, such as a standardized notice of appeal form. Each court form comes as part of a “suite” that includes a comprehensive how-to guide (for instance, “How to Get a Divorce with Children”). The form publication process involves extensive subcommittee and committee reviews by subject-matter experts, as well as user testing and public comment. The Commission is currently looking to build out its forms library to include other common legal topics, such as parental responsibilities and guardianship, and it has also hired a consultant to assist in the redesign of form suites in the interest of simplicity and increased usability.
The Commission is proud to share its leading access to justice initiatives with other states to ensure that all vulnerable litigants nationwide can meaningfully engage with the courts. We encourage interested counterparts to reach out to AccessToJustice@illinoiscourgs.gov to set up a knowledge-sharing session.