The Municipal Court Pro Bono Panel Program (“Program”) is a partnership between The Circuit Court of Cook County (“Court”), The Chicago Bar Association (CBA), CARPLS, The Chicago Legal Clinic (CLC) and area law firms (“Firms”). The goal of the program is to provide much-needed pro bono service to pro se litigants in need of litigation counsel. We hope the program will assist individual litigants, improve the administration of justice and provide the opportunity for volunteer attorneys to gain trial and other litigation experience through pro bono service. Basic information about the program is set forth below.
The purpose of the Program is to provide pro bono representation to low-income litigants in the Municipal Court Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, particularly in those cases where a jury demand has been filed and the adverse party is represented by an attorney.
The Program is focused on Municipal Court cases (claims involving $30,000 or less, including small claims) in which a jury demand has been filed and one party is proceeding pro se. Case types will vary, but examples include: representing defendant in a consumer debt claim, representing either party in a breach of contract claim, or representing either party in a claim for damages arising out of a multi-car accident. In more limited circumstances, the Program will involve cases where no jury demand has been filed, but the Chicago Legal Clinic (CLC) has determined that trial counsel is likely needed for an upcoming bench trial.
Cases will be referred at various points in the litigation, but typically: (1) when the case is ready for trial; or (2) when the case is scheduled for a status hearing early in the case. Judges in trial court rooms may refer cases that are ready for trial. Cases referred from trial judges will typically be set for trial within 30 to 90 days (6 months at the outside if extenuating circumstances exist). Additionally, cases may be referred at the beginning of the litigation, which will involve longer representation but provide pro bono attorneys with the opportunity to participate in mandatory arbitration, as well as case development. Cases referred at earlier stages of litigation will be scheduled for mandatory arbitration within 2-7 months (depending on the discovery schedule, which is dictated by the amount of the claim) and will typically be scheduled for trial within 5-12 months from the date of the referral (3-5 months from mandatory arbitration). The case schedule and corresponding arbitration and trial dates may vary depending on the case complexity, the court’s docket and other factors, but these should be good estimates based on current scheduling practices.
CARPLS currently runs the Municipal Court Advice Desk on the 6th floor of the Daley Center. Primarily through the Advice Desk, CARPLS provides case screening for the Program. In cases where a jury demand has been filed and a litigant is pro se, CARPLS will screen initially for basic income eligibility, meritorious claims or defenses, and other basic criteria still being determined. CARPLS will refer appropriate cases to the CBA Liaison for case placement. For non-jury cases in need of trial counsel, CLC will litigate the cases and refer clients to the Program for representation when it determines that trial counsel likely is needed (i.e. CLC has conducted discovery and settlement negotiations and determined that the case cannot or should not be settled and that trial is likely).
Referral and oversight
The CBA Liaison will refer cases to the designated contact person at each Firm. The CBA Liaison will also generally track case progress and outcomes, and is available to volunteers for assistance or locating resources to help with their cases.
When a Firm receives a referral, it should check for conflicts and conduct additional screening within 10 business days and notify the CBA Liaison and/or the potential client of its decision to accept or reject the case. If a Firm is unable or unwilling to take the case due to conflicts or capacity, the CBA Liaison will refer the case to the next Firm on the list, if appropriate. Information about why a case is rejected is appreciated, but not necessary.
Trainings are held 1-2 times a year. The training covers the practical aspects of working in municipal court, how to prepare a municipal court case, a hands-on skills session and overview of the Program. Volunteers watch the first training recording on the video link at the home webpage.