Going to court can be scary and overwhelming. However, sometimes it is necessary. If you are planning on going to court, the following information will help you feel more comfortable with the process.
Illinois state courts
There are three levels of state courts in Illinois:
- Circuit courts
- Appellate courts
- Supreme court
Almost all cases start at the circuit court level. There are 23 judicial circuits that cover the 102 counties in the state. Some circuits only cover one county, while others cover more than one county.
When you go to court, you will probably be going to a local courthouse that is part of your judicial circuit.
Illinois federal courts
In addition to state courts, Illinois also has federal courts.
The lowest level of federal court is called US district courts. Illinois has three:
Cases in federal court are usually more complex and involve more money. Also, federal courts can only decide particular types of cases. Note: Bankruptcy is handled in federal court.
To find more information about the federal court system, visit the United States Courts website.
Divisions in circuit courts
Circuit courts may be organized into divisions based on case type. Judges assigned to a specific division only hear certain types of cases.
Circuit courts in more populated areas, like Cook County, may have more divisions compared to circuit courts in smaller counties.
Below is a list of standard divisions you may encounter when going to court:
- Criminal: Some circuit courts may further divide criminal cases into misdemeanor and felony divisions
- Civil: Circuit courts may have separate divisions for probate, law, chancery, and family law which may also be called domestic relations.
- Traffic: Judges may rule on cases involving drivers who received tickets for moving violations, traffic violations, driving under the influence (DUI), speeding, or running stop signs.
- Juvenile: Judges may rule on cases involving abuse or neglect of minor children and minor children who have committed criminal acts.
Each circuit court is different and may organize its divisions differently.
How to find a circuit clerk
The circuit clerk is the official record keeper for the court. A case enters the court system when you file a case with the circuit clerk. A circuit clerk is not the same as a county clerk.
You may use the circuit clerk's office to file court papers in a case, review a case's official court file, get certified copies of a court order, or pick up court forms.
Many circuit clerks have websites that give valuable information about using the court and the circuit clerk's office. You may be able to find information about filing fees, court locations, court forms, and community resources by visiting your circuit clerk's website.
To find out how to contact your local circuit clerk's office, visit the Illinois Courts' website.
Information to know about a case
You can navigate the court system if you know some basic information about your case. Most of the information should be listed on the person's court papers:
- Plaintiff's or Petitioner's name
- Defendant's or Respondent's name
- Case number
- Judicial circuit
If you are filing a case, you are called the plaintiff. If a case has been filed against you, you are called the defendant. In some cases, the plaintiff is called the petitioner, and the defendant is called the respondent.
You must write the plaintiff's or petitioner's name, the defendant's or respondent's name, and the case number on any paper you file with the circuit clerk.
If you call the circuit clerk to find out information about your case, they will ask for the case number, plaintiff's or petitioner's name, or defendant's or respondent's name, to look up for a case on the computer. If the circuit clerk has a website, you may be able to look up information about your case online.
You may need to write on your court papers the judicial circuit number and the county name where your case is being decided. The division will also be helpful to know if you are looking for filing fees or court forms.
Hiring a lawyer to go to court for you
Going to court can be confusing, and it is risky to do it alone. It is always best to have a lawyer who can help you with your specific situation.
You can contact your local bar association to find an attorney that you can hire to represent you. A private attorney will charge you for their services. You can also visit the Illinois State Bar Association website to search for a private attorney in your area.
Free legal help
Depending on your household income, you may qualify for free legal assistance.
If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may qualify for free legal assistance. If you have been charged with a crime, you may be able to have an Illinois Public Defender or other private attorney represent you for free.
Also, if you are looking to sue someone for money, you may be able to find an attorney who will represent you for free as long as you agree to give them a percentage of the amount that you win in court. This is called contingent representation, and it is common for plaintiffs' attorney to take cases in this way.
Representing yourself in a case
You have the right to represent yourself in court. However, you will be expected to follow the court's rules and procedures when representing yourself. The judge and court staff are not allowed to give you advice or help you with your case.
Tips for going to court
- Mediation: Think about whether mediation might be a good solution for your case before you go to court. In mediation, a trained person will help you and the person who you disagree with try to find a solution to your dispute outside of court. Ask your circuit clerk for more information on mediation. If you are in Chicago, you can go to the Center for Conflict Resolution website or call (312) 922-6464.
- Going to court more than once: Your first trip to court may not be for your hearing or trial. Your first time in court may only be to file paperwork, and it may take more than one trip to court after that before your case is finished. If you have received paperwork in the mail, read it carefully, so you know what you need to do on the first visit to court.
- Dress properly and arrive early: When you go to court, remember to dress like you are going to a job interview, and be sure to get there early.
- Use court help desks: Clerks, judges, and other court employees cannot give you legal advice or tell you what you should do in your case. There may be a help desk available at the court where you can get some advice.
- Always be polite: Always be polite to the judge, the court staff, your opponent and others in the courtroom. Turn off your cell phone. Don't eat, drink or chew gum, and don't talk in court unless it is your turn. When you are in front of the judge, you should only talk to the judge, not the other party or their attorney.
- Be prepared: Go to court prepared with organized documents and witnesses to support your side of the story, if it is the day of your hearing.
To learn more about going to court, watch our video on courtroom basics.
Updated: January 2017