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Selfies and Other New Trends in Court Terminology

By Judge Barb Crowder, Edwardsville

There is now a book entirely of “selfies” (photographs one takes of oneself). The concept has been around since the 1800s, yet has taken over as a new term that everyone understands. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet). William Shakespeare may have been among those who first pointed out that the names of things do not affect what they are but even he recognized that a turn of phrase can make a concept instantly understandable.  The court system, though perhaps not in the forefront of trends, continues try to keep up by adopting terminology and policies to better help court patrons (f/k/a ‘the public’) mired in the labyrinth of unfamiliar legal procedures. In April 2015, the court adopted the Illinois Supreme Court Policy on Assistance to Court Patrons by Circuit Clerks, Court Staff, Law Librarians, and Court Volunteers to add consistency to court programs and hopefully make the court system more ‘user-friendly’. Re-naming users of court may not change their role, but it may make the court experience more understandable.

First and foremost, the purpose of the new policy is to clarify to non-lawyers what services can actually be given to help people who come to the courthouse. No clerk or librarian enjoys frustrating an already upset individual by parroting the phrase:  “I am sorry but I am not a lawyer and cannot answer that question/help you know what to write/what to file”. Not to mention when the irate and frustrated individual begins to scream at the staff person, no one is satisfied.

The new terms and definitions in the policy give dignity and recognition to the many individuals who must come to the courthouses in this state. One large step forward is to recognize “self-represented litigant” takes the place of telling a person he or she is “unrepresented” which implies the person standing there is invisible rather than simply trying to go it alone. And telling someone he or she is “pro se” only emphasizes the fear that the court system is going to use a secret language unfamiliar to the litigant to make it harder for him or her to participate. Any individual seeking information to file or defend a case himself or herself without an attorney is a “self-represented litigant.”  And anyone who contacts the system for information is a “court patron” whether the information is for that individual or a family member or friend.

The biggest concern most non-lawyer staff members express is to determine what information can be given to court patrons and what information is going to be deemed legal advice and lead to complaints (sometimes by lawyers standing nearby) that the staff is giving legal advice and should not do so. The new policy explains that “legal information” is neutral factual information about the law and the legal process and that legal advice is discussing an individual’s rights based on the actual facts. Court staff and volunteers may not give legal advice but are encouraged to give legal information. They are also strictly forbidden from telling a court patron whether to file a case or what the outcome will be in court.

The policy provides a long list of services court staff are permitted and encouraged to provide which includes information about court rules, court terminology (“you are a plaintiff/defendant”) and local procedures. Advising patrons about any pro bono services that are available (Prairie State, Land of Lincoln, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services); local bar association pro bono assistance, limited scope representation possibilities, lawyer referral services (ISBA Lawyer-Finder, for example), and other services such as domestic violence services are all permitted. The staff may help guide patrons to forms that could assist them as the Illinois Supreme Court has approved forms available on its website and Illinois Legal Aid Online has helpful forms in many areas. The new policy also clarifies that a patron who has a disability or a literacy barrier and cannot fill in an approved form may be assisted by a staff person who records the information verbatim on the form for the patron who is unable to do so him or herself. The policy is clear on its intent that the enumerated services and others that are consistent with the policy of assisting court patrons are all allowed and encouraged.

Finally, the court policy assures staff members that their following this policy is not the unauthorized practice of law and does not create an attorney client relationship.

Court staff members have received this policy and the terminology with open arms. A written and approved policy provides support for those who wanted to give information to self-represented litigants but were hesitant to do so. It also allows all of us in the court system to use the same terminology and to give people seeking information and representing themselves a little more dignity and recognition during a time that is often frightening in a location that is unfamiliar. Short of assigning an actual lawyer to each individual (which is an unrealistic pipedream of this author’s), the least we can do is recognize the increasing number of ‘selfies’ in court and make understanding and meeting their needs a little easier. The policy is available on the court’s website and should be reviewed by every lawyer and distributed to all employees, too. See www.illinoiscourts.gov/SupremeCourt/policies.

Posted on June 30, 2015 by Chris Bonjean