Dear Justice Corner:
I have a case where both parties are self-represented. I hope you can help me with some issues:
- Both parties have filed the “wrong” pleadings (e.g., motion to modify instead of a petition for rule to show cause), but I know what they are asking for. Can I look beyond the title of the pleading and move the case forward?
- The parties keep asking me what to write in the form pleadings they wish to file, what may I tell them? What may my clerk tell them?
- May I explain the elements of the cause of action and burdens of proof before the trial starts?
- During testimony, may I ask questions of the parties or prompt them to talk about issues raised by the pleadings but not addressed yet in evidence?
Dear Judge Bothsrl:
Judges and court staff may offer certain assistance to self-represented litigants (SRLs). Illinois Supreme Court Rule 63(A)(4) allows a judge to “make reasonable efforts, consistent with the law and court rules, to facilitate the ability of self-represented litigants to be fairly heard.” Under the Rule, SRLs will be given a meaningful opportunity to present their case, without compromising the court’s neutrality. For court staff, the Illinois Supreme Court Policy On Assistance to Court Patrons by Circuit Clerks, Court Staff, Law Librarians, and Court Volunteers ( Safe Harbor Policy) outlines what court staff may and may not do to help court patrons.
To address your specific questions:
- Yes. How a SRL labels a pleading is much less important than the substance of the pleading and what it is asking for. There could even be a different title listed in the e-filing system than on the pleading itself. This can happen because the filer will be selecting the file type from a drop down list and very easily may select the wrong one. Such errors should not be held against the SRL and judges may focus on the substance of the pleading instead.
- No, neither judges nor court staff can tell a litigant what words to write in a form or pleading (legal advice). However, both judges and court staff can explain the process for filing, serving, and giving notice and how to complete forms and what is required to be in pleadings (legal information). For example, you may tell the SRL to list the amount of money they are asking for on line 5, but cannot say that they should write down a certain amount (e.g., $4000).
- Yes. Judges absolutely may, and should, explain an overview of a trial and the legal standards and requirements to SRLs as early and as often as needed to make sure that the litigants understand and have an opportunity to be fairly heard.
- Yes. Especially when both sides are representing themselves, judges may ask questions of the parties to attempt to gather relevant information and control the trial. If a party has not yet testified about something that was in the pleadings, judges may ask questions to address it or ask the parties if they wish to present evidence or testimony on certain points.
If you would like copies of the Safe Harbor Policy and other related resources, please contact Jill Roberts, Self-Represented Litigant Services Specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, please email your questions, comments, concerns, suggestions, or stories about self-represented litigants to email@example.com.
-Justice Corner, Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice Court Guidance and Training Committee
- Chief Judge Michael J. Sullivan, McHenry County
- Presiding Judge Clarence M. Darrow, Rock Island County
- Presiding Judge Sharon M. Sullivan, Cook County
- Chief Judge Kevin P. Fitzgerald, McLean County
- Judge William G. Schwartz, Jackson County
- David Holtermann, Lawyers' Trust Fund, Chicago
- Joseph Dailing, Legal Aid Consultant, Rockford