Helping Ensure It’s Substance Over Form in the Courts

Forms go along with the court process like peanut butter goes with jelly. And when it comes to access to justice, well-designed court forms can be a welcoming and helpful resource for people without lawyers, or forms can be a huge barrier when they are complicated and full of legalese.

Prior to 2012, people in Illinois unfortunately were far more likely to encounter the latter scenario. The result was that in many cases, there were multiple—as many as 102!—versions of the same court form depending on where you were in Illinois, and often many versions of the same form within Cook County alone. And because Illinois was one of the few states that did not have a standardized court forms rule at the time, the problem was exponentially more difficult to address for the CBF and others trying to make court forms more user-friendly and understandable for unrepresented litigants.

The only practical way to resolve this fundamental access to justice challenge was through statewide action by the Illinois Supreme Court. For that reason, developing a rule and process for creating standardized forms in Illinois was one of the first priorities when the Supreme Court formed its Commission on Access to Justice in 2012.

The CBF worked closely with a special Committee of the Commission to identify best practices from other states, gather input from various stakeholders, and develop a proposal for the Court to adopt a standardized forms rule and procedure for the Illinois courts.

Based on that proposal, the Supreme Court adopted Rule 10-101 and an associated Administrative Order in November, 2012 that sets out the process for developing and approving standardized forms that, once approved, are required to be accepted in all Illinois courts.

Fast forward to today, and the Illinois Supreme Court now has a growing library of approved standardized forms, and many more in the works. An exceptional staff attorney at the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts manages the forms process, working with dozens of dedicated Commission volunteers who have relevant experience and expertise in the various substantive areas being addressed.

The standardized forms use plain language as much as practicable and come with clear instructions for people who are using them. In addition, Illinois Legal Aid Online automates each form so that people can complete and print them in a user-friendly online format. Commonly used forms are also translated into Spanish, Polish, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Korean to help non-English speakers better access the courts.

Given the volume of court forms used in the courts, the drive towards standardized forms will be ongoing for some time to come. There has been great progress already though, and the courts are much more accessible and understandable for people without lawyers as a result.