Earlier this week, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice approved a new Order of Protection (OP) form suite. The forms, which are intended to simplify and standardize the OP filing process for pro se litigants statewide, are available on the Court’s website.
We spoke to three people who were instrumental in the development of the new form suite about its significance.
- Alison Spanner, Assistant Director, Access to Justice Division at the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts
- Matt Newsted, Automated Documents Producer at Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) and a member of the OP Subcommittee
- Margaret Duval, Executive Director of Ascend Justice and a member of the OP Subcommittee
Why was the new form suite needed?
Alison: The goal of simplifying the OP forms was and is to provide litigants with plain language court forms and procedural instructions that will help them participate meaningfully in their court case.
How are the forms different from previous versions?
Alison: First and foremost, they’re written in plain language and have accompanying instructions which guide the litigant in how to fill out the form correctly and comply with the Illinois Domestic Violence Act (IDVA) and other procedural requirements.
Additionally, the statewide standardized OP forms are significantly more detailed than most, if not all, of the OP forms in existence prior to their publication. The IDVA is carefully crafted to create remedies and protections for petitioners without creating the risk that litigation will result in a loss of rights for the petitioner, even when the petition is denied or dismissed.
As a result, the OP subcommittee designed forms to educate the petitioner and respondent regarding their rights and obligations, to be legally sufficient, to safeguard the due process rights of the respondent and the safety of the petitioner, and to be faithful to the purpose and intent of the IDVA.
Can you tell us about the development process?
Alison: To be technical, we consider these forms to be brand new because the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice didn’t have a role in drafting the OP forms currently in circulation. Those forms predated our work. However, we did consider the existing forms when drafting our forms.
The approval process for all standardized statewide court forms is governed by Illinois Supreme Court Rule 10-101, Administrative Order M.R. 25401, and the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice Resolution on Standardized Court Forms. The Access to Justice Commission’s Forms Committee has nine subject-matter specific subcommittees drafting forms. The OP Subcommittee was responsible for drafting these forms.
Once drafted, the forms and instructions go through a rigorous approval process: each form is reviewed for plain language, user-tested with members of the public and posted for public comment on the Supreme Court’s website for 45 days. In the case of the OP forms, we received a significant amount of comments during the public comment period. The OP Subcommittee reviewed 113 pages worth of public comments, which were submitted by 45 individuals and groups representing 28 counties throughout Illinois.
Lawyers don’t often use plain language. How were you able to incorporate it?
Matt: When drafting and reviewing the instructions and standardized forms, we used plain language as much as possible. Shorter words and sentences greatly improve readability. Where the law requires specific terms, they’re defined. Our target was a sixth grade reading level as required by the Illinois Supreme Court Policy on Plain Language.
How will this new OP form suite impact pro se litigants?
Margaret: The OP Subcommittee recognized that, despite the best efforts of many legal aid organizations and pro bono attorneys, most people seeking an OP don’t have access to legal advice or representation. We also recognize that OP forms are filled out by people who’re pressed for time, may have experienced recent trauma and for whom there is a very small margin for error, in the sense that their safety and that of their children is implicated in how well the legal process works.
Our hope is that by using clear, plain language and including instructions we can make the process easier and more effective for self-represented litigants. Even though change is always challenging, we think that reducing litigants’ confusion will ultimately benefit everyone who works in and around the courts.
What resources are available to help pro se litigants complete the new OP forms?
Matt: The standardized OP form suite includes detailed, step-by-step guides that explain how to ask for an OP and how to fill out an Emergency or Plenary Order. In addition, each court form includes plain language instructions right next to the blank spaces.
ILAO has many articles and guides about the process. They also have a guided interview that helps petitioners fill out the OP forms by answering simple questions. ILAO is updating the Easy Form guided interview to use the new forms. It should be available in the fall of 2019.
For more on improving access to justice, check out our blog.