|Filing a Case in Federal Court without a Lawyer||
Last updated: November 2011
You may have to file your civil case in federal court if it:Is based on Federal law or the United States ConstitutionIs based on an International TreatyInvolves suing a person from another state for at least $75,000If your case belongs in federal court, you may be able to add a state law claim to your case. It must be based on the same facts and situation as your federal claim. If somebody is suing you in federal court, you still have to decide whether the case belongs there. If it does not, you can move to dismiss the complaint against you. You can get help filing your civil case in federal court at the U.S. District Court Pro Se Assistance Program located in the Dirksen Federal Court Building.Click on words that appear like 'this' to learn what these words mean.Can I File My Case in Federal Court? Federal courts are courts of "limited jurisdiction." This means they can only hear certain kinds of cases. The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois hears cases based on:Federal lawThe United States ConstitutionInternational TreatiesDiversity of Citizenship. This means that each side in the lawsuit is from a different state. The amount of money the lawsuit is for must be at least $75,000 for a diversity case.If your case belongs in federal court, you may be able to add a state law claim to your case. It must be based on the same facts and circumstances as your federal claim. If somebody is suing you in federal court, you still have to decide whether the case belongs there. If it does not, you can move to dismiss the complaint against you. If a case does not belong in federal court, it can often be filed in state court.For more information about where to file your case, see "Where to File a Civil Lawsuit" in the Related Articles tab.Can I get help filing my civil case in federal court? Yes. The U.S. District Court Pro Se Assistance Program can help you file your case. It is on the 20th Floor of the Dirksen Building, 219 S. Dearborn. A Pro Se Assistance Program lawyer will be in an office on the 20th floor. It is next to the south elevators, with a waiting area outside. You must make an appointment ahead of time to see one of the lawyers. To make an appointment, please call the Intake Desk of the Clerk's Office at (312) 435-5691.You can use a computer on the 20th floor near the clerk’s office to access the Pro Se Assistance Program's online information, forms and resources. Hours for the Pro Se Assistance Program are Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.How can the Help Desk help me? At the Pro Se Assistance Program, you can speak with a lawyer or a trained volunteer. They can offer you information about filing and court procedures. They can also give limited legal advice about a case you want to file or have filed in the District Court.The Pro Se Assistance Program lawyer cannot represent you in court. Instead, the Pro Se Assistance Program can refer you to a lawyer, legal aid hotline, government agency, mediation program, or social service agency that can offer you more help with your case.Can the staff of the Clerk's Office help me? The staff of the Clerk's Office can help you by answering questions about procedures. The law forbids them from giving you legal advice. You should consider trying to get professional legal help. You may use the "Find Legal Help" section of this guide.The staff of the Clerk's Office cannot do any of the following:Recommend a legal course of action or suggest ways to helpPredict how a district judge or magistrate judge may decide any issue Interpret the meaning of any judicial orderInterpret the local rules of this Court, federal procedural rules, or federal laws.What documents do I need to file my civil case in Federal Court? When you file a civil case, you must complete and give each of the following documents to the Cashier:An original signed complaintCivil cover sheetAppearance form Summons for each defendant named in the complaintGo to the "Forms/Letters" section to complete the forms that you need to file your case. Fill out all the forms, and any other documents you need, before you go to file them at the Clerk's office.Bring your documents to the cashier's window. It is located in the northeast corner of the 20th floor of the Chicago courthouse. [NOTE: In the Western Division, you will bring your files to the Clerk's Office. It is on the second floor of the Rockford courthouse.].If you want the court to assign you a lawyer, you may file a motion for appointment of counsel. You will file this form along with the forms above. See the Forms/Letters section to complete the forms for appointment of counsel.Where is the Clerk's Office? The mailing addresses for the two divisions of the Clerk's Office are:Eastern DivisionClerk's Office, U.S. District Court219 South DearbornChicago, Illinois 60604Western DivisionClerk's Office, U.S. District CourtUnited States Courthouse211 South Court StreetRockford, Illinois 61101The Clerk's Office is open to the public Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. through 4:30 p.m. It is closed on legal holidays. In the Chicago courthouse, it is in the northeast corner of the 20th floor. In the Rockford courthouse, it is on the 2nd floor.Do I need to have extra copies of these documents? For every motion filed with the court, you must file an original and one copy of the motion for the judge. See the Forms/Letters section for more information.If you do not pay the filing fee and submit a petition to proceed without paying the fee, you will need to submit one extra copy of your complaint for each defendant. See Question 9 for more information about the petition to waive your filing fee.You also need to provide an original summons and one copy for each defendant. You must give three extra copies if you are suing the federal government or one of its agencies.What happens when I submit the Complaint? Present your documents. The cashier will make sure that it looks like you have properly completed them. The clerk will then assign the next available civil case number to your complaint. A computer program will be used to randomly pick a district judge for your case. A magistrate judge will also be designated for your case. You may stamp the case number and both judges' names on your copies at the time of filing. The cashier will stamp the original complaint and the judge's copy. They will also stamp each copy that will be served on the defendants.If you have paid the filing fee and have provided a summons, the cashier will issue an original and one copy for each defendant and will give them back to you for service. It is your job to make sure that the summons and a copy of the complaint are served on the defendant. However, you may not serve the summons yourself. Your options for serving the summons are the following:You can arrange for a private process server to serve the summons. The process server will file an affidavit with the court stating how the service was carried out. A summons may be served by anyone over the age of 18 who is not a party to the case;You can file a motion asking the Court to have the U.S. Marshal serve the summons. You can do this if you cannot afford to pay the cost of a process server;You can ask the defendant to waive the right to formal service. If you want to do this, you need to send the defendant a “Notice of Lawsuit” and a “Waiver of Service Form.”Service needs to be done properly in a civil case. A judge can dismiss your case for improper service.How much will this cost me? There is at least a $400 filing fee for civil cases. After you file a case, there are no fees to file another document in that case. However, there are a few other fees listed below that you may have to pay.Court FeesCivil Case Filing Fee - at least $400.00Habeas Corpus Filing Fee - at least $5.00Foreign Deposition Filing Fee - at least $39.00Registration of a Foreign Judgment - at least $39.00Letters Rogatory or Letters of Request - at least $30.00U.S. Court of Appeals Docketing Fee - at least $250.00U.S. District Court Notice of Appeal - at least $5.00Misdemeanor Appeal (Magistrate Judge to District Judge) - at least $32.00Copy ServicesCertification Fee (per document) - at least $9.00Exemplification Fee (per document) - at least $18.00Copy Fee (per page) - around $0.50Copy of Magnetic Tape Recordings - at least $25.00Retrieving a Record From Off-Site Storage - at least $45.00Records Search & Certification (per name or item) - at least $25.00Miscellaneous FeesPrinted Copy of the Court's Local Rules - at least $10.50Check Returned for Insufficient Funds - at least $45.00You can pay these fees by mail or in person. To pay in person, go to the Clerk's Office cashier's window. It is in the northeast corner of the 20th Floor of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. You can pay with cash, by check, or by credit card. Only Visa, Mastercard, and American Express are accepted). If you pay by check, make your check out to "Clerk, U.S. District Court." Your name, address, and phone number must appear on the front of your check.What can I do if I cannot afford to pay the filing fee? If you cannot pay the $400 filing fee, you may ask the court to let you file without paying the fee. The Latin phrase used for filing this way is "in forma pauperis." In English, it means "in the status of a poor person." It is often shortened to "IFP." These kind of cases are sometimes called IFP cases.You will use a separate form to ask permission to file IFP. The full name of this document is "Application to Proceed Without Prepayment of Fees and Affidavit." This document is almost always called by the shorter name of "IFP petition." Go to the Forms/Letters section to complete this form.If you want to file “IFP”, you need to file the application when you file your complaint. Make sure to include the original petition and a copy for the judge.When you file your IFP petition, you should give the cashier the original summons and one copy for each defendant. The summons will be kept with your file. If the judge lets you file in forma pauperis, the summons will issue through the U.S. Marshal. The district judge for your case will review the IFP petition, and all of the other forms from your case. . The judge can rule on your petition a few different ways, for example: The judge may grant the IFP petition. If this happens, the summons will be issued. The judge may also direct the U.S. Marshal to serve the summons and complaint on the defendant;The judge may decide that you can afford the $400 filing fee. If this happens, you will need to pay the filing fee before your case can go ahead. The judge will give you a specific period of time to pay the fee;The judge may decide that you need to pay a part of the $400 filing fee. If this happens, you must follow the judge's instructions before your case goes ahead. The judge will give you a specific period of time to pay the fee;The judge may ask for more information from you before ruling on your IFP petition;The judge may also review your complaint and dismiss your case on legal grounds. If this happens, your case will not proceed.What other services are available at the Clerk's office? Reviewing DocketsThere are a few computers in the public area of the 20th floor. You can use these to review automated dockets for civil and criminal cases. You may also use these dockets to check the Court's party index (a list of all parties in civil cases) and case index (a list of case numbers).Reviewing Case FilesYou can review case files by filling out a file request card. Then you give the card to the file department desk in the public area of the 20th floor. A deputy clerk will bring you the case file. Case files may not be taken out of the Clerk's Office. To make a copy of a document in the case file, you may use copy machines located in the public area. These cost about 25 cents per page. The Clerk's Office will give you copies of documents for about 50 cents per page.Other Clerk's Office ResourcesThe public area of the Clerk's Office also provides other services such as:Blank forms used in civil cases, including all of the forms described in this guideA computerized version of the Court's Local Rules, which is installed on a computer terminalQuick reference pamphlets that give a directory to the Court and the Clerk's Office Public telephones.Information about procedures, the local rules, fees, as well as several other subjects covered in this guide may be found on the Court's internet website. The website also has each judge’s schedules for the coming week and has links to other judicial websites.
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