The superb new strategic plan from the Illinois Access to Justice Commission is a model in may ways. I want, however, to emphasize one, its structure. This approach gives them, and us, a strong and effective document that will serve over thime. The Principles are as follows:
- Plain Language Principle: Court users should have access to a wide variety of plain language resources designed to help them understand and exercise their civil and procedural rights and reduce the number of barriers encountered while using the court system.
- Process Simplification Principle: Court users should find that court procedures and policies are streamlined and efficient to allow for a positive user experience with the court system while still preserving substantive and procedural fairness and due process rights.
- Procedural Fairness Principle: Court users should have access to a court system that serves as a fair, impartial, and transparent forum in which they are addressed with dignity, respect, equality, and professional courtesy by all judges, circuit clerks, and other court staff .
- Equal Access Principle: Court users should have access to justice through full participation in the judicial process, regardless of their socio-economic status, English language proficiency, cultural background, legal representation status, or other circumstances.
- Continuous Improvement Principle: The ATJ Commission should strive for continuous improvement and increased capacity to best meet the diverse and constantly evolving needs of court users.
Courts everywhere could do far worse than engrave this on the front hallway wall just after, or indeed just before, security.
Then for each principle, a set of one or more specific initiatives are laid out. For the first Principle:
Initiative 1: Develop, automate, and translate standardized, plain-language legal forms and other resources for areas of law frequently encountered by self-represented litigants into commonly spoken languages.
• Initiative 2: Support the continued and expanded use of court-based facilitators/navigators, including JusticeCorps, and evaluate the effectiveness of these services as a means to assist self- represented litigants and contribute to the efficient operation of the Illinois courts and study how to make facilitators/navigators most effective.
• Initiative 3: Evaluate the self-help services that are currently available through courts in Illinois, including court websites, and recommend policies that promote effective and efficient services.
The ways of implementing these are then laid out in detail in the Plan.
Now, and this is most radical, the Plan then proposes for each Initiative a definition of success. Here is the forms one, in the plain language initiative.
Forms are standardized, written in plain language, simple, self-explanatory, actionable, multi-lingual, accessible, fillable, savable, printable, and available in both electronic and print versions. Moreover, self-help information is available, simple, easy to understand, consistent across courts and technologies, and able to provide a roadmap of court procedure. Judges, circuit clerks, court staff, legal aid attorneys, and other stakeholders are familiar with the standardized forms and other self-help resources and regularly refer self-represented litigants to them.
Note that while these definitions are not themselves numerical, they are easy to convert into numerical measures. How about:
The percentage of forms, availability of information, extent of staff understanding, and actual offers, weighted by the frequency of need for use, of forms that meet this standard.
Here also is the definition of success for the simplification initiative,
Court users will find some cumbersome rules and procedures have been simplified and streamlined to improve access to the courts and compliance with procedural requirements. A triage system will be implemented in some pilot sites with high volume civil dockets with the goal of improving judicial efficiency while ensuring that litigants obtain a procedurally fair outcome. Simplification efforts will be evaluated regularly to determine if additional modifications are needed.
As is appropriate for such a new area, there is more wiggle room here. But is it not hard to imagine this being converted into a stronger definition in the future.
The Plan includes budget and staffing recommendations, which are very reasonable and manageable, as well as detailed information bout each of the initiatives.
I would note that the great thing about a principles-driven approach is that when disputes arise, the principles provide a way of resolving them, just like with a Constitution.
I would urge that all states look at this one very carefully.
I only wish I could say that I helped write it!