The legal system can be a scary place full of unknowns for a pro se litigant trying to maneuver through a case. Add in a jury demand and attorney representation for the adverse party and the intimidation from the unknowns can be overwhelming. Enter the Municipal Court Pro Bono Panel Program to help.
When Megan McClung isn’t instructing future lawyers in Trial Advocacy at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, or Illinois lawyers in the Chicago Bar Association’s educational programing, you will likely find her managing the Municipal Court Pro Bono Panel Program and assisting with its training of attorneys and staff.
What Is The Program?
The Municipal Court Pro Bono Panel Program provides pro bono representation to low-income litigants in the Municipal Court Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County. Municipal Court cases involve civil claims of $30,000 or less, including small claims cases, such as consumer debt claims, breach of contract claims, and car accident claims for damages. If the case includes a jury demand filing and the opposing party is represented by counsel, the Municipal Court Pro Bono Panel Program will attempt to provide a pro bono attorney for the pro se litigant. Additionally, the Program may become involved in cases where no jury demand has been filed if the Chicago Legal Clinic has determined that trial counsel is likely needed for the pro se litigant in an upcoming bench trial.
The Municipal Court Pro Bono Panel Program is a partnership between the Circuit Court of Cook County, the Chicago Bar Association, CARPLS, the Chicago Legal Clinic and several Chicago area law firms with the goal of providing assistance to low-income litigants, improve the administration of justice, and provide the opportunity for volunteer attorneys to gain trial and other litigation experience through pro bono service. Approximately 20 Chicago area law firms assist the Municipal Court Pro Bono Panel Program from either the beginning of the litigation or when trial court judges refer cases to the program.
How Does The Program Work?
Early referrals to attorneys assisting litigants with pro bono representation allows their cases to benefit from a more productive discovery process and progression through mandatory arbitration before any trial setting. Other instances may occur when a pro se party is assisted with an attorney from the Program at the pre-trial and trial stages. Regardless, more pro bono legal assistance is needed from Chicagoland attorneys.
For many pro se parties, the Municipal Court Advice Desk at the Daley Center, run by CARPLS, is the springboard to their access to justice. The Desk is the primary entry point for CARPLS to screen cases. Where a jury demand has been filed, a litigant is pro se, and the party meets the income eligibility requirements, the person is referred to the Program. The Desk is operated by staff attorneys, volunteer attorneys, interns, and law students under direct supervision of the attorneys. Referrals are made when direct legal representation is required and available. A party’s meritorious claims or defenses are examined by a staff attorney and referred to a CBA Liaison for follow-up case assignment with the help of a law firm’s designated contact person.
According to the Chicago Bar Foundation, the Desk provides over 7,000 individual consultations and services to about 5,500 people annually. Approximately 150 cases each year are referred to Chicago Legal Clinic for extended representation, along with approximately 30-40 each year to the Municipal Court Pro Bono Panel Program for potential jury trial representation. The Municipal Court Advice Desk is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and is located at CL16, Richard J. Daley Center.
How To Become Involved?
McClung explained how she sees the program as win-win-win. “Thanks to the Municipal Court Pro Bono Panel Program, many low-income litigants are getting the access to justice assistance they need to navigate the legal system, while the judicial efficiency and quality improves at the further benefit to attorneys getting useful trial and other litigation experience through pro bono service.”
McClung explained how some attorneys greatly appreciated the opportunity to explore cases that were not within their normal practice area, such as consumer debt claims and personal injury cases. And the need for more pro bono assistance remains, McClung stated:
The demand continues for more pro bono assistance from more law firm participants. We want to ensure every case referred to the program gets the pro bono help we offer. We look forward to more Chicago law firms recognizing this need and stepping up to the challenge.