Self-represented litigants (SRLs) going through the process of an appeal face many unique challenges that are difficult to overcome. Appeals involving SRLs are often not decided on the merits, but rather on whether the SRL met procedural requirements for pursuing or defending appeals. Furthermore, at least in Illinois, while resources to assist SRLs at the trial level have grown to meet the rising needs, there are very few resources to assist those filing a civil appeal. In response to this need, just over a year ago, the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) expanded Illinois Free Legal Answers, to include Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals.
A project of the American Bar Association (ABA), Free Legal Answers was created to increase access to advice and information from pro bono lawyers about non-criminal legal matters for those who cannot afford legal assistance. It is now active in over 40 jurisdictions within the United States. Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals operates as a virtual legal advice desk, where low-income Illinoisans who are self-represented can submit a question about their civil appeal. Volunteer lawyers log onto the site at their convenience and answer questions waiting in the queue. With the launch of this program, it became the only appellate-specific help desk in Illinois to assist SRLs with their civil appeal and by using Free Legal Answers for this endeavor, our project became the first of its kind in the nation.
Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals is also a unique collaboration among PILI, the ABA, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC), and the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice to address the unmet need of SRLs in the Illinois reviewing courts. The AOIC had been working to increase resources to assist SRLs with their civil appeals. While self-help materials and statewide forms exist to help SRLs understand requirements and deadlines relating to their civil appeal, there are still limitations within those resources and with court staff who are only able to provide legal information. Illinois Free Legal Answers provides an easy platform through which SRLs can seek the advice that court staff are unable to provide. Now, instead of simply telling SRLs that they cannot give advice, court staff can refer them to Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals.
“As the first statewide appellate self-help center, this program provides SRLs invaluable access to experienced appellate attorneys,” said Alison Spanner, Assistant Director of the Access to Justice Division at the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. ”This initiative is a monumental shift that helps to shine a light on the appellate process and allows those who cannot afford an attorney to meaningfully participate in their appeal.”
In the first year of Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals, 123 questions have been answered by 31 different attorneys through the system. Those 123 questions are actual conversations between clients and attorneys and include 285 additional replies from clients and 307 total replies from attorneys. Although some questions had specific issues related to a substantive area of law, most of the questions asked by SRLs were procedural in nature, such as about deadlines, fee-waivers, and obtaining transcripts.
To launch the project last year, PILI worked closely with the AOIC to provide different trainings for volunteers, including a presentation on the civil appellate process and a video to provide an overview of the platform. Volunteers can learn more about these trainings and receive CLE credit on PILI’s website. We also formed an Advisory Committee which included Appellate Justices, court staff, and appellate attorneys to assist in developing and implementing this model on a statewide basis as we launched the program.
We have been incredibly grateful to our volunteers on the Advisory Committee, as well as those who are answering questions from clients on the site. In addition to volunteers finding pleasure in giving back, a recent quote from a Civil Appeals volunteer underscores how this pro bono opportunity also helps one hone their own skill: "The rules of appellate jurisdiction and appellate procedure are highly technical,” the volunteer said. “Having to explain them, especially to people without legal training, increases one's own understanding. Also, there are very few other sources of information about this topic that are available to non-lawyers."
PILI is still looking for others with civil appellate experience to volunteer and assist SRLs who previously had to navigate the civil appeal process alone. You can find more information about us on our website at www.pili.org.
For more information about the Free Legal Answers program in your state, visit freelegalanswers.org.