Illinois is one of only two states without court-approved standardized forms for pro se litigants and others to use. That might be about to change.
In its first annual conference in October, the Illinois Supreme Court's Access to Justice Commission promoted several ways the legal system could be made less intimidating and complicated for unrepresented litigants. (For more about the conference and the commission, see "Access to Justice Commission strives to open courts to the poor, disabled" elsewhere in this month's LawPulse.)
Of the many ideas the commission and its guest speakers presented, the first to take hold in Illinois will probably be standardized statewide court forms to simplify litigation for those unassisted by counsel.
"The commission has brought us some interesting ideas, and it all sounds great," Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride told the Illinois Bar Journal at the close of the conference. "I can only speak for myself, but these all sound like important issues, and the standardized forms will be the first issue that we address." [The court did just that on November 28 -- see the update at the end of this article.]
Illinois First District Appellate Court Judge Mary K. Rochford led a panel discussion about how the standardization of court forms, with templates that can be filled in either on paper or online, has already improved access to justice in most of the country.
With all seven Illinois Supreme Court justices listening from the audience, Rochford made a plea for the high court to work with its commission in approving a long list of forms and establishing new court rules mandating that those forms be accepted for filing in all Illinois courts.
"Court forms are one of the most fundamental parts of access to the courthouse," Rochford said. "Surprisingly, Illinois is one of only two states that does not have court-approved standardized forms."
Rochford said some judicial districts around the state provide template forms to unrepresented parties for filing in various legal matters. The Access to Justice Commission established a subcommittee to study the national trend.
While praising local efforts in Illinois, which have largely been implemented by individual circuits or private legal-aid providers, Rochford said the key to success is standardized forms that can be used by all Illinois courts.
"Standardized forms have broken down barriers to the unrepresented across the county," Rochford said. "The use of the forms is usually not mandatory, but they must be accepted by all the courts in the state.…We ask you [Illinois Supreme Court Justices] to embrace this step and understand that it will make our system better."
One million forms, two million litigants
Chicago-Kent College of Law Professor Ronald W. Staudt, who was one of Rochford's co-panelists, said the National Center for State Courts has been studying the effect of standardized forms in several of the jurisdictions that have already adopted the practice.
He said there have already been almost a million standardized documents created in this country, which have been used by more than two million litigants. Idaho currently leads the nation with the highest per-capita use, having seen a 6,725 percent increase in standardized court form filings from 2005 to 2011.
"Illinois will never meet the needs of low-income people unless Illinois has official statewide forms," Staudt said. "So, justices, it's up to you to make this happen."
Stacie Colston Patterson of Illinois Legal Aid Online used a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate how easy it can be for litigants to follow step-by-step procedures for completing forms tailored for the precise kind of legal action they are seeking.
With a user-friendly computer interface that can be translated into any language, online forms can be created, printed, and ready to file within minutes. The programs can also automatically create notice-of-filing and proof-of-service documents to accompany each form when filed at the courthouse.
In addition to online services, Patterson said it is also important for standardized forms to be supplied by courthouse clerks when unrepresented litigants ask for help.
'You are where we were back in 1999'
Wisconsin implemented court-approved standardized forms 13 years ago, and many of those forms are now mandated for use by all attorneys, in addition to unrepresented parties.
Terri Borrud, the forms and records officer for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, told the Illinois conference that the Badger State now has more than 1,000 forms, sorted by case type and available on the court's website. The forms are created in Microsoft Word and PDF files with blank lines that can be filled in on a computer, or printed out and completed by hand. A party or court official may supplement the standardized court forms as needed, Borrud said.
"You are where we were back in 1999," Borrud said. "We felt that without the standardized court forms, it would be too difficult for us to move towards an automated court system with e-filings.…They're easy, and [unrepresented litigants] feel more self-confident and less intimidated by the system."
Although the standardization of court forms is only one step towards opening courthouse doors for disadvantaged and unrepresented litigants, Justice Kilbride said he believes the success in other states should not be ignored. He pointed out that the Illinois Supreme Court has already been working towards electronic filings in this state, and uniformity among those court forms could help expedite that process.
"The commission will be sending us their reports and recommendations, and we look forward to continuing to move these issues in the right direction," Kilbride said.
UPDATE: on November 28 and effective immediately, the Illinois Supreme Court promulgated Supreme Court Rule 10-101, "Standardized Forms," paragraph (a) of which reads as follows: "The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice shall establish a process to develop and approve standardized, legally sufficient forms for areas of law and practice where the Commission determines that there is a high volume of self-represented litigants and that standardized forms will enhance access to justice."