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Illinois’ First Appellate-Specific Help Desk Celebrates First Anniversary

In September 2020, the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) expanded Illinois Free Legal Answers to include Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals. Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals is a virtual legal advice clinic for civil legal issues where low-income Illinoisans who are self-represented can submit a question about their civil appeal. This program is the only appellate-specific help desk in Illinois to assist self-represented litigants (SRLs) with their civil appeal. It is also the first of its kind in the nation.

A project of the American Bar Association (ABA), Free Legal Answers was created to increase access to advice and information about non-criminal legal matters for those who cannot afford legal assistance. It is now active in 41 jurisdictions within the United States, including Illinois.

With Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals, we are using the virtual legal clinic model of Illinois Free Legal Answers, which has been both crucial and successful during the pandemic. PILI is still looking to build our pool of volunteer attorneys with civil appellate experience and assist SRLs who previously had to navigate the civil appeal process alone.

In the first year of the program, 119 questions have been answered by 34 different attorneys through the system. Although some questions were specific about 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 provided trainings for volunteers, including a presentation on the civil appellate process and a video to provide an overview of the Illinois Free Legal Answers platform. This information is available for all volunteers assisting SRLs who submit questions about their civil appeal through the Illinois Free Legal Answers platform. Volunteers can learn more about receiving CLE credit for these trainings on PILI’s website.

Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals is 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 Illinois Appellate Courts. The AOIC had been working to increase resources to assist SRLs in the Illinois Appellate Courts. While self-help materials and statewide forms exist to help SRLs understand requirements and deadlines relating to their civil appeal, there are limitations within those projects and with court staff who are only able to provide legal information. The AOIC reached out to PILI about expanding the existing program to allow for questions relating to civil appeals. Volunteer lawyers log onto the site at their convenience and answer questions waiting in the queue.

In order to assist in launching the program, we also formed an Advisory Committee which included Appellate Justices, court staff, and attorneys who specialize in civil appeals throughout the state. The purpose of the Advisory Committee is to assist in developing and implementing this model on a statewide basis and included the following members: Justice Judy Cates, Illinois Appellate Court, Fifth District; Timothy Eaton, Taft Stettinius & Hollister; Laura G. Jennings, Novack Macey; Sharon Levy, Deputy Clerk III/Project Manager, Third District Appellate Court; Marron Mahoney, Mahoney Silverman & Cross, Appellate Lawyers Association Representative; Justice Aurelia Pucinski, Illinois Appellate Court, First District/First District Executive Committee Representative ; Josh Vincent, Hinshaw & Culbertson; Susan Welfeld, Chief Deputy Clerk, Civil Appeals Division, Circuit Court of Cook County ; Cheryl Zalenski, ABA Center on Pro Bono. We are incredibly grateful to this Advisory Committee in assisting as we launched the program.

If you are not already volunteering for the program, you can sign up and start answering questions at IL.freelegalanswers.org. You can filter for questions in the “Civil Appeals” category or sign up to receive notifications when Civil Appeal questions are asked under the “Manage Subscriptions” tab. If you have any questions about the program, please reach out to PILI Senior Managing Attorney Brent Page by email or at 312-832-5128.

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