July 25 , 2017
Since it was established by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice (ATJ Commission) has sought to expand access to justice for unrepresented and vulnerable litigants, across Illinois, through its many programs. Those programs include: the development of standardized forms; assistance for those litigants who face language barriers; and guidance and training for court personnel. The Illinois Supreme Court and the ATJ Commission recognize, however, that we must continue to do more to assist self-represented litigants.
The ATJ Commission recently developed a three year strategic plan which was approved by the Illinois Supreme Court in May 2017. The strategic plan outlines the principles which will guide the future work of the ATJ Commission, sets priorities, and identifies initiatives for the next three years.
Prior to drafting the strategic plan, the ATJ Commission reviewed recent court data related to civil cases. That data showed two significant shifts in our civil courts:
(1) No longer do the majority of civil cases involve disputes where legal counsel represents each side. In 2015, 93 of 102 Illinois counties reported that more than 50% of civil cases involved a self-represented litigant on at least one side. In some case types, that number rose to as high as 80%.
(2) It is no longer true that the majority of litigants, witnesses, and family members who are involved in our court system speak English fluently. According to the latest U.S. Census data, one of every five Illinois residents speaks a language, other than English, at home.
Additionally, other data shows that a growing number of Illinois residents live in or near poverty and there is a limited number of legal aid or pro bono attorneys throughout the state.
These shifts and the state’s limited resources cannot be ignored as the ATJ Commission moves forward seeking to increase access to our courts for those who are poor and vulnerable. While drafting the strategic plan, certain questions arose:
(1) If more than half of the users of the civil court system are unrepresented by counsel, should we consider the difficulties faced by the self-represented litigant in achieving strict compliance with rules of civil procedure, discovery, and evidence?
(2) What should we do to relieve the struggles of self represented litigants to understand the antiquated terminology and legal jargon of a court system designed for litigants who are represented by lawyers?
(3) What court processes and procedures could be simplified or accomplished remotely to decrease unnecessary and costly court visits?
With these questions in mind and the changes in our state’s landscape, the ATJ Commission’s strategic plan identifies five core principles that define its mission and 10 priority initiatives for 2017 through 2020.
I. Plain-Language Principle
Court users should have access to a wide variety of plain-language resources designed to help them understand and exercise their civil and procedural rights and reduce the number of barriers encountered while using the court system. To meet this goal, the ATJ Commission will pursue the following initiatives:
Develop and automate standardized, plain-language legal forms and other resources for areas of law frequently encountered by self-represented litigants and translate those resources into commonly spoken languages.
Support the continued and expanded use of court-based facilitators/navigators, including JusticeCorps, and evaluate the effectiveness of these services as a means to assist self-represented litigants and contribute to the efficient operation of Illinois courts.
Evaluate the self-help services that are currently available through Illinois courts – including court websites – and recommend policies to increase the effectiveness of these services
II. Process Simplification Principle
Court users should find that court procedures and policies are streamlined and efficient, and are communicated, in plain language, to allow for a positive user experience with the court system while still preserving substantive and procedural fairness and due process rights. To that end, the following initiatives have been identified:
Evaluate and recommend policies to enable remote access to the court system which will allow litigants to have meaningful access to the justice system without having to make multiple time-consuming and expensive trips to the courthouse; and promote remote access technologies that also enable remote interpreting services for limited English proficient litigants in courts that often cannot locate an in-person interpreter.
Research and make recommendations to simplify court procedures and processes that are frequently encountered by self-represented litigants, with the goal of making those processes and procedures easier for court users to understand and comply with, while possibly reducing the number of court visits necessary to complete a case.
III. Procedural Fairness Principle
Court users should have access to a court system that serves as a fair, impartial, and transparent forum where they are addressed with dignity, respect, equality, and professional courtesy by all judges, circuit clerks, and other court staff. To meet this goal, the ATJ Commission will pursue these initiatives:
Develop guidelines and promote training opportunities for judges who encounter significant numbers of self-represented and limited English proficient litigants in their courtrooms.
Develop guidelines and promote training opportunities for other court personnel – especially circuit clerks and members of their respective staffs – to enable them to assist self-represented and limited English proficient litigants in a consistent, ethically permissible manner.
IV. Equal Access Principle
Court users should have access to justice through full participation in the judicial process, regardless of their socio-economic status, English language proficiency, cultural background, legal representation status, or other circumstances. To meet its equal access goal, the ATJ Commission will pursue the following initiatives:
Develop language access resources and language assistance services through recruiting and training interpreters to achieve court certification and promote the use of qualified interpreters in court proceedings and building awareness in limited English proficient communities about language access in the courts.
Identify, develop and promote the implementation of court policies and rules which promote legal representation, including limited scope representation in partnership with bar associations, civil legal aid, pro bono organizations, and other community groups.
Develop community-based programming to increase trust of the court system through educating community stakeholders about the available access to justice resources.
In designing and implementing its initiatives, the ATJ Commission and Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) will consider the perspective of court users in an effort to improve the court system. And, through the course of the next three years, we will engage in ongoing evaluation of each initiative to identify a program’s successes and deficiencies and, when possible, make modifications and improvements.
We believe the end result will benefit unrepresented litigants in the presentation of their cases and increase the efficiency and fairness of our state’s courts.