May 25 , 2017
Every year in Illinois, hundreds of thousands of litigants appear in civil cases without an attorney. They must assert and defend their legal rights in vitally important areas including housing, custody, domestic violence, and more without an attorney to guide them. Litigants without lawyers confront a variety of barriers, both inside and outside the courthouse, that impede access to justice. The barriers may include logistical challenges (child care, work schedules, transportation), financial burdens (filing fees, service fees), and legal procedures (excessive paperwork, legal jargon, lengthy processes). It is against this backdrop that many litigants seek help in the office of the circuit clerk.
Court clerks are the first point of contact for the court for litigants. Without an attorney, self-represented litigants often direct their questions and concerns to the clerks. They may look for reassurance and guidance from court clerks who are both familiar with complicated legal procedures and accessible to the general public. However, as circuit clerks know all too well, they cannot give legal advice to those who seek help. A 2016 survey conducted by the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice revealed that the number one challenge faced by circuit clerks is requests for legal advice. However, as representatives of the court, they must remain impartial and neutral, offering only legal information that furthers a litigant's ability to navigate the court system alone. Clerks must manage the difficult balance between assisting litigants, while not helping them too much.
Responding to this challenge, in 2015 the Illinois Supreme Court adopted the Policy on Assistance to Court Patrons by Circuit Clerks, Court Staff, Law Librarians, and Court Volunteers. The Policy provides guidance as to the distinction between legal information, which can be shared with court patrons, and legal advice, which cannot. The Policy illuminates the breadth of available legal information clerks can share, going beyond simply sharing court rules and procedures. Court clerks can also explain available options to litigants and provide them with the information necessary to make an informed decision. Legal information also encompasses referrals to a wide range of legal and supportive services as well as specific guidance about forms, fee waivers, interpreters, and other resources for limited English persons and self-represented litigants.
Many litigants do not understand the role of the circuit clerk and why they can provide information, but not advice. Many of their questions seek legal advice, or reassurances that a specific option is indeed the best one. To help prepare clerks for these situations and to ensure that they themselves understands the contours of the Illinois Supreme Court Policy, the AOIC and Commission on Access to Justice have embarked on a series of training sessions for circuit clerks, law librarians, and other public facing court staff. These training sessions offer an opportunity for circuit clerks and other court staff to discuss the challenging situations they encounter in their courthouses and to learn about the Illinois Supreme Court Policy and other resources that the AOIC and Commission on Access to Justice are developing for self-represented litigants.
Over the last year, AOIC staff conducted 34 trainings in 13 counties reaching over 600 circuit clerks and their staff throughout the state. Each training session includes an overview of the Illinois Supreme Court Policy, a series of hypothetical situations intended to provoke dialogue, and a summary of existing resources available inside and outside the courthouse. This project has been a valuable opportunity for AOIC staff to hear directly from circuit clerks about the challenges they face on the ground and to engage in an ongoing dialogue about how best to serve the growing number of self-represented litigants. It has also created space for circuit clerks to learn more about statewide resources that exist for self-represented litigants including standardized forms, civil legal aid providers, Illinois Legal Aid Online, and limited scope representation among others. Circuit clerks are critically important partners in addressing the access to justice gap, and the AOIC and Commission on Access to Justice look forward to continued collaboration with them as we collectively strive to ensure access to justice is available for all.