May 25, 2018
The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice (ATJ Commission) has been developing plain language court forms for self-represented litigants (SRLs). As part of this process, on May 16, the ATJ Commission published new divorce and child support forms. The packet of forms includes a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage/Civil Union, Judgement, Parenting Plan, Summons, Order for Support, and supporting instructions explaining procedural requirements. These forms and instructions were drafted using plain language principles and user design techniques that help users provide relevant information about their case and ensure an understanding of the procedural requirements.
The new divorce and support forms, and accompanying instructions, join the over 20 plain language court form packets that the ATJ Commission has published since 2012. All forms can be found online at illinoiscourts.gov/forms/approved.
Forms Can Be Useful to Judges and Court Staff
The ATJ Commission has been developing the plain language legal forms with two goals in mind. First, the forms are designed to help the growing number of SRLs who are navigating the court process without an attorney. Second, judges and court staff may utilize the forms and instructions as tools for helping SRLs to understand the legal process in the subject area of the forms.
Specifically, the forms assist an SRL in providing relevant information for the judge to consider. The instructions, included with the forms, break the court process down into understandable parts. For example, the process for getting divorced and seeking child support is multifaceted and is drawn largely from the IMDMA Act. However, much of the information a litigant needs to know cannot be found in the statute. The instructions which come with the forms, including the divorce forms, answer questions, such as:
- How do I file my documents?
- Will I be charged a filing fee?
- How do I serve the other party?
- What documents should I bring to court?
- How should I act in court?
This information, although administrative in nature, is critical to the SRL’s pursuit of the court case and assists in court efficiency. It is our hope that judges and court staff refer litigants to these packets often.
An Ever-Evolving Project
To oversee the development of standardized forms, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts has dedicated a staff person, the Forms Officer, to shepherd the forms through the process. After a form is published, the Forms Officer continues to monitor each form for legal sufficiency and usefulness across the state. Comments and suggested changes are always welcomed and should be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org. All comments are collected and reviewed regularly.
Soon our published forms will be undergoing rigorous evaluation. The ATJ Commission is teaming up with Harvard Law School Access to Justice Lab (2jlab.org) to test the efficacy of the forms through randomized control trials in several counties throughout the state. It is our hope that this study will answer the question, “do our court forms help SRLs participate more fully in their cases while simultaneously reducing the burden SRLs place on court staff and judges?” Upon completion of the study, a report will be published detailing the Lab’s findings.