When the pandemic arrived last March, we quickly learned how much could be done remotely – remote court, remote school, remote happy hour. However, the pandemic also shined a light on some of the outdated court rules and procedures that prevented basic tasks from working well remotely.
One stark example was the limits on the use of electronic signatures on court documents. In the best of times, this would be an inefficient roadblock to access to the courts, but during the pandemic, it often forced people to put their own health and the health of others at risk or be effectively shut out of the system even in matters that could be critical to their safety and independence.
When Illinois adopted mandatory e-filing in 2017, the new rules allowed any document filed through the e-filing system to be signed electronically. While that covered a significant portion of court filings, it also left some big gaps where wet ink signatures were still required. Of particular concern for access to justice, people without lawyers who were exempt from e-filing still had to provide a wet signature on their court forms. That included litigants seeking to expunge a criminal record or file for an Order of Protection. It also included many litigants with disabilities, limited English proficiency, or limited access to the courthouse.
The burden placed on these unrepresented litigants extended to the legal and pro bono providers who work with them. Legal aid and pro bono programs pivoted to remote services quickly during the early days of the pandemic, but some of them encountered a roadblock when it came time to get a client signature. While the vast majority of their work could be done remotely–clients interviewed by phone, documents prepared on a computer, and forms transmitted by email–the volunteer attorney or advocate would often have to schedule an in-person meeting to obtain an ink signature on a document.
Working with the Circuit Court Pro Se Advisory Committee, the CBF helped draft and submit a proposed rule change to the Illinois Supreme Court to remedy this problem. The proposal expands the use of electronic signatures to all court filings, offering litigants the same flexibility regardless of case type or the manner in which they filed their paperwork.
The Supreme Court adopted this new rule on February 23, providing legal aid and pro bono attorneys with the ability to serve more clients in a more efficient and accessible manner during the pandemic and beyond. The full text of the rule is available here: https://courts.illinois.gov/SupremeCourt/Announce/2021/022321-3.pdf.