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Supreme court, advocates push legislation to expand access to justice, fund e-filing
Among other things, the legislation would help defray the costs of statewide e-filing and expand the pool of individuals who qualify for legal aid.
The Illinois Supreme Court has teamed up with bar associations and other advocates to push for legislation that would enable it to streamline procedures and improve funding for programs dedicated to expanding access to the justice system. Three recent bills have passed both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly.
Senate Bill 1768, initially filed on February 15 of this year, would create the Supreme Court Special Purposes Fund, the proceeds of which would be used by the supreme and appellate courts to defray costs associated with the implementation of statewide electronic-filing and case-management systems.
Senate Bill 1846, also initiated on February 15, would amend the Code of Civil Procedure in relation to court-sponsored pro bono legal services programs. Among other things, the amendment would change the definition of "indigent person" to expand the pool of individuals who qualify for legal aid.
House Bill 3111, filed on February 26, also deals with pro bono and legal aid matters by, among other things, establishing a court-sponsored pilot program for a statewide military personnel and veterans' legal assistance hotline, by expanding court-based legal-assistance programs within each judicial circuit, and by creating a task force to study and improve the ways in which court fees are used to fund similar legal-aid initiatives.
Fund will help downstate counties pay for e-filing
Judge Ann B. Jorgensen of the Illinois Appellate Court, Second District, who has been a longtime proponent of digitizing the state court system, is hopeful the new legislation will help expand e-filing programs throughout the state. As chair of the ISBA Bench and Bar Section Council, Jorgensen has been following the supreme court's recent efforts under the Access to Justice Commission it launched in June of 2012 (See LawPulse, December 2012 IBJ).
"I think [the pending legislation] is consistent with Chief Justice Kilbride's access to justice movement," Jorgensen said. "It's clear that's the direction the court wants to go. This seems to be consistent with that, and of course I've been a proponent of e-filings and e-records for a while now, so anything that moves that along would be a good thing."
If signed by the governor, SB 1768 would provide that, with certain exceptions, all court fees received by an appellate clerk will be paid into the Supreme Court Special Purposes Fund in the state treasury. This replaces the current treasury fund in which appellate court fees have been deposited since 1911, according to legislative reports.
The Special Purposes Fund will be used for the creation and implementation of e-filing and electronic-docketing programs in courthouses throughout the state. Jorgensen said the funds are likely to be allocated primarily to downstate districts currently lacking the resources necessary to modernize their systems.
"We have a lot of … counties that are going to have a hard time covering the expense of computerizing their systems," Jorgensen said. "Some of these counties can't even afford to pay the probation officers they need, so asking them to do more without funding just isn't going to fly. They need assistance, and the court is trying to address that" with this legislation.
Expanding eligibility for legal aid
Bob Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, said he has been working with staff lawyers from the supreme court, legal-aid organizations, pro bono lawyers and ISBA legislative liaisons to push SB 1846 through the legislature.
"Senate Bill 1846 is part of House Bill 3111 - basically a carbon copy," Glaves said. "It passed both houses unanimously and is supported by the [Chicago Bar Association] and the ISBA. It will streamline the process for waiving court fees in cases where people are represented either by legal aid or pro bono programs that are under the auspices of the court."
SB 1846 would change the statutory definition of "indigent person" for purposes of eligibility for legal aid, court-appointed pro bono representation, and waivers of court filing fees to include all people whose income is 125 percent or less of the federal poverty income guidelines. The new definition would also include people above that poverty threshold if they otherwise would qualify for legal services under the eligibility guidelines of particular legal-aid organizations or under court-sponsored pro bono programs.
Eligibility for such services is currently determined under the Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974.
"There's already that statute in place when legal aid is representing somebody," Glaves said. "But it has some limitations that make it not function well."
Glaves said the new legislation would make it easier for legal-aid organizations to determine who is eligible for their services, and would make it more efficient for the court to grant access to such services for litigants in need.
"We're removing duplicative hearings from the process," Glaves said. "What we're changing is that, if legal aid will represent you, or the court appoints a pro bono lawyer to represent you, they've already made a determination that you need help and can't pay for it, and that you probably have a case that has some merit to it, so why go through yet another court hearing to determine whether your fees should be waived?"
Since these statutes would use court fees among the various funding sources, Glaves and Jorgensen further applauded the court for pushing certain portions of HB 3111 that would establish a Statutory Court Fee Task Force. The task force would investigate the funding, administration and evaluation of the various programs funded, at least in part, by court fees. It would review how fees are imposed on criminal defendants and civil plaintiffs and issue recommendations on how the allocation of those fees could be altered to maximize their effect on pro bono, legal-aid and e-filing programs.
"There's been a lot of conversation about what the fees cost and how they are used," Jorgensen said. "There's a need to make it simple. It has become such a maze of 'this applies here, but only if…, and this applies there, but only if…' so it's probably a good thing for someone to look back at these fees and find a better way to use them."