July 29 , 2019
Dear Justice Corner,
Self-represented litigants often ask questions to me and my staff that appear to be seeking legal advice; how do you recommend I respond to these inquiries, beyond simply telling SRLs that I can’t help them?
- Judge WantToHelp
Dear Judge WantToHelp:
While the Illinois Supreme Court Policy On Assistance to Court Patrons by Circuit Clerks, Court Staff, Law Librarians, and Court Volunteers (also known as the “Safe Harbor Policy”) does prohibit court staff from giving legal advice (c)(6-9), it does allow you to share legal information with SRLs. Similarly, according to the Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 63(A)(4), a judge may make reasonable efforts, consistent with the law and court rules, to facilitate the ability of self-represented litigants to be fairly heard, which could include giving them legal information.
Legal information could include: defining court terminology, explaining requirements for service, informing patrons on how to request accommodations due to a disability, referring them to legal aid resources, directing patrons on how to apply for a waiver of court fees or an exemption from electronic filing, and helping SRLs identify approved forms to complete (d)(1-7).
However, your ability to assist court patrons is not limited to these circumstances— you are also permitted to provide other services consistent with the intent of the Safe Harbor Policy (d)(19). When doing so, you should consider whether the information you are sharing is:
- Neutral— legal information should not advance one party’s position over the other party’s position.
- Universal— legal information should be the same no matter which party is requesting it.
- Objective— legal information does not require knowledge of case-specific details.
- Unrestrictive— legal information can come from anyone, not only licensed attorneys.
If a SRL asks for legal advice, rather than turn them away, you can use the opportunity to communicate legal information. For example, if a patron asks how he or she “should” serve the other party, you can explain the different methods of service and what each entails. This neutral response gives an SRL more information that allows them to make an informed decision about their case, rather than prescribing a path for them to follow.
However, should an SRL continue to probe for legal advice, you might recommend that they speak to an attorney. The Safe Harbor policy prohibits referrals to a specific lawyer or law firm for fee-based representation (c)(5), yet it does allow you to make referrals to other resources such as: pro bono legal services; low-cost legal services; limited scope legal services; legal aid programs and hotlines; law and public libraries; non-profit alternative dispute resolution services; lawyer referral services; internet-based resources (such as ILAO); court-sponsored or -affiliated educational classes; units or departments of government; or domestic violence resources (d)(10a-k).
For more information on the Safe Harbor Policy and the difference between legal aid and advice, you can visit http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/CivilJustice/Training_Education/Safe_Harbor_Guide.pdf. Also, there will be two sessions on this topic at the Judicial Education Conference in 2020. One will focus on judges and Rule 63(A)(4)where a new bench card on the topic will be distributed and the other will focus on all court staff and the Safe Harbor Policy.
The Access to Justice Commission and AOIC Division are also available and willing to come to your courthouse and train your staff on the Safe Harbor Policy. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with requests for training, material development, or to request copies of the Safe Harbor Policy and other related resources. As always, please email your questions, comments, concerns, suggestions, or stories about self-represented litigants.
-Justice Corner, Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice's Court Guidance and Training Committee
- Chair, Judge Jo Beth Weber, Jefferson County
- Presiding Judge Clarence M. Darrow, Rock Island County
- Presiding Judge Sharon M. Sullivan, Cook County
- Associate Judge Elizabeth M. Rochford, Lake County
- Chief Judge Michael Kramer, Kankakee County
- Justice Michael Hyman, 1st Appellate District
- David Holtermann, Lawyers' Trust Fund, Chicago
- Wendy Vaughn, Clinical Professor NIU, Member of Access to Justice Commission