Help Squad: Consumers can file lawsuits and other legal documents online —some free via an online fee waiver
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
by Cathy Cunningham
You might have heard about mandatory court costs and filing fees that can result in lower-income individuals being kept in jail for failure to pay or being burdened with insurmountable fee repayment schedules following a trial.
Maureen Jouhet, content director at Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO), contacted me to share information about how such individuals can qualify for fee waivers, as well as how ILAO can help all consumers file lawsuits and court papers online while keeping fees to a minimum.
She began by informing me that in Cook County, beginning July 1, electronic filing will be mandatory for all civil cases. There will be exemptions available for those who have no home internet access, as well as those who have an ADA-recognized disability or are unable to fluently read, write or speak English.
The reason Cook County is mandating civil court e-filing is four-fold: It aims to lower administrative costs, reduce errors, improve document tracking and cut down on time spent waiting in line to file paper documents.
“E-filing has been in place in a lot of Illinois counties since Jan. 1,” Jouhet said. “It’s just now coming to Cook County.”
In an effort to educate the public about this new offering, as well as make it more easily accessible, Jouhet told me: “ILAO is developing plain language explanations and tools for people to understand the different information that is required to submit documents through an electronic filing service provider (EFSP) without an attorney.
“In the near future, we will be launching specific web pages related to e-filing in Cook County because their requirements and rules are different from the rest of the state and they have a lot more variances in their procedures.”
Consumers can look for this information on ILAO’s web site (www.illinoislegalaid.org) shortly after the July 1 Cook County e-filing launch date.
Though e-filing aims to reduce the time and cost associated with filing or responding to a lawsuit, certain individuals will qualify for a waiver of all court fees due to their income.
For those individuals, ILAO provides step-by-step instructions on how to complete an “Application for Waiver of Court Fees.” Information required to be considered for this exemption includes the following:
• The amount of money the filer receives each month
• The amount of money the filer received in the past 12 months
• The number of people living with the filer who depend on him/her for financial support
• Any owned property and its associated mortgage, if relevant
• The make and model of any owned cars
• The value of personal property including furniture, electronics, and clothes
• The name and number of the court case
Self-guided online interviews that generate court-ready documents assist people in completing this waiver.
For consumers who don’t have internet access at home or who require assistance with any part of the new e-filing process, ILAO has established legal self-help centers at libraries, courthouses and other facilities throughout Illinois. A listing of these locations, which are searchable using filters like the counties in which they are located and the services they offer – including scanners, online legal help, referrals to legal aid and ILAO’s “Lawyer in the Library” program – can be found at ILAO’s legal self-help centers web page.
The whole point of all these offerings, explained Jouhet, is to make the decision to be a pro-se (self-represented) litigant a bit easier and more cost-effective. It levels the legal playing field just a bit, and enables access to the court system by everyone – not just the wealthy.
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Cathy Cunningham is a freelance columnist