September 29, 2020
In response to the growing number of cases involving litigants who cannot afford to hire an attorney at the appellate level, in 2017 the Illinois Supreme Court approved the creation of an Appellate Resource Program within the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC). The program is overseen by the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice (ATJ Commission) and receives guidance from appellate clerks, the ATJ Commission’s Appellate Committee, and the Illinois Supreme Court’s Appellate Court Administrative Committee. Since its inception, the program has implemented myriad efforts to assist self-represented litigants (SRLs) in civil appeals.
One significant program development was the launch of the first-ever virtual help desk for civil appeals in Illinois. The help desk started in September 2020 and is a unique partnership between the AOIC, ATJ Commission, and Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI). The initiative is overseen by an Advisory Board comprised of numerous stakeholders, including appellate justices, appellate attorneys, clerks, and representatives from bar associations. SRLs can now submit a question and receive an answer from a pro bono lawyer through Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals, which is an American Bar Association platform administered by PILI in our state. It presents an unprecedented opportunity for a person to get guidance from an appellate attorney about their appeal no matter where they live in Illinois. While the program just launched, it will provide the AOIC with invaluable data on the issues and questions presented by SRLs. Additionally, it also presents a new pro bono opportunity for attorneys to utilize their experience to help SRLs in civil appeals.
Additionally, the Appellate Resource Program has a dedicated self-help page on the Supreme Court’s website that offers numerous resources to assist SRLs. The focus is to help self-represented litigants understand the civil appellate process, deadlines, and requirements by offering resources in diverse formats. These resources include various appellate guides, overviews, e-filing manuals, FAQs, and how-to videos. The website also features a complete suite of statewide standardized forms, which contains all the forms and instructions necessary to complete an appeal. The forms were developed by the ATJ Commission’s Appellate Forms Subcommittee, which is staffed by appellate subject matter experts. Additional forms are forthcoming for administrative agency appeals, as well as a complete suite of forms for appeals to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The program is also focused on collecting quantitative and qualitative data about appeals. In 2019, in partnership with the First District Appellate Clerk’s Office, the program launched a 10-month pilot project to proactively reach out to SRLs who filed a Notice of Appeal in a civil case. The goals of the initiative were to better understand questions SRLs have about the civil appellate process, to more effectively recognize what barriers they have in completing their appeals, and to obtain more specific data on outcomes. The pilot project involved 450 cases and helped us better grasp the substantive area of law in which appeals were most often filed, the types of questions commonly asked by appellants, and the need to connect SRLs with attorneys for legal advice. The data compiled from the pilot project is being used to formulate additional ideas for enhancing appellate resources to further assist SRLs. The final report on the pilot project is available for review on the Court’s website.
Finally, another important milestone in the Appellate Resource Program was the collection of data on SRL filings in civil appeals. In 2019, the Court mandated appellate clerks to include data in their quarterly statistical reports to the AOIC on Notice of Appeal filings by SRLs in civil appeals. In Fiscal Year 2019, a total of 3239 civil appeals were filed statewide and of that total, 1330 were appeals filed by self-represented litigants, representing 41 percent of the total civil appeals filed during that time period. SRL filings were consistent across all five appellate districts as well, which was illuminating and reinforced the demand for appellate self-help initiatives. As such, this data will be used to make strategic, data-driven decisions and to ensure the development of new programming is effectively serving its targeted audience.
At the core of the Appellate Resource Program is an understanding that the current court system is designed for lawyers and appellate rules and procedures can be particularly challenging for SRLs. As such, the program will continue to advance methods to assist SRLs in civil appeals. This will certainly involve the development of additional resources and further collaboration with court stakeholders, bar associations, and other partners to expand access to justice for people seeking help with the appellate process. We look forward to providing further updates about the efforts and progress of our program as we work to improve the delivery of services to assist SRLs in civil appeals.