Court System

Learn more about the structure of the legal system, your right to an attorney and the importance of making it to court on the assigned date.

It is a fundamental premise of our legal system that the truth is best arrived at through an open process in which every affected party in a dispute has the opportunity to present his or her case to the person or persons (judge or jury) charged with deciding the dispute. This process includes both the ability to present your case and to critique the case put forth by the other party. Hence, the system is sometimes called the adversarial system.

The classic method of resolving disputes legally is through a trial. Trials are governed by elaborate rules covering every stage of the process, from pretrial information gathering (called discovery) to appeals. While you have the right to represent yourself in court, the complexity of these rules dictate that you should consult with a lawyer if you are sued or are considering suing someone else.

The legal system also includes other methods of resolving disputes, including mediation, arbitration and negotiation. Lawyers are frequently involved in alternative dispute resolution, but mediators and arbitrators need not be attorneys.

It is worth mentioning that decisions made in administrative settings, such as whether you are entitled to disability or unemployment benefits, or should have your driving privileges suspended, often take on a more adversarial character than might be expected. You normally have the right to be represented by an attorney in administrative hearings, and it is often vital to the success of a claim to have assistance.

A civil action is a lawsuit brought to enforce, redress or protect private rights. In general, it includes all types of cases other than criminal proceedings.

A summons is a legal notice that a civil lawsuit has been filed against you. The summons will inform you in what court the case was filed, who is suing you and for how much money. The summons will also tell you that you have the right to file an answer to the complaint which is attached to the summons, and/or tell you the date on which the case will go in front of a judge for the first time, called the return date. The return date is not the trial date. A trial, if one occurs, will be set by the judge on the return date, or subsequently, for a date acceptable to all parties.

Attached to the summons is the complaint or petition. The complaint or petition tells you what the lawsuit is about; why the plaintiff thinks you owe him, her or it money; and the amount the plaintiff is seeking. The complaint may also ask for other relief.

To be effective, the delivery or service of summons must be accomplished in a legally appropriate way. In general, it is accomplished either by a sheriff or private process server handing you the summons or complaint in person, or by leaving the paperwork with someone who lives in your household and is 13 years of age or older.

If you receive a summons and complaint, you should contact an attorney promptly. The lawyer can answer questions regarding the lawsuit and determine whether service was proper. Be aware that if you ignore a suit after you have been served, a judgment can be entered against you by default. In other words, you lose the case. A default can be entered on the return date if you are not present. Do not ignore a summons.

A crime or public offense is any act committed in violation of a law forbidding it and which is subject, upon determination of guilt, to a fine, incarceration or other substantial punishment.

The United States Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Illinois, as well as other laws, afford a criminal defendant numerous rights. Many of these rights apply even before someone is arrested and formally charged, for example, the right against self-incrimination and the right to counsel. If you become aware that you are a suspect in a criminal investigation, you should seek the advice of an attorney as soon as possible. If you are arrested, you should speak with a lawyer before your first court date, if possible.

If you cannot afford your own attorney, you may be eligible for a court appointed lawyer. In Illinois, as well as in most other states, a court appointed attorney is referred to as a public defender. If you are a student at NIU, you can contact us.

The consequences of missing court depend on a variety of factors, including the nature of the offense for which you are charged, the local court rules where your case is pending, and the policies of the prosecutor. Generally speaking, missing court is a very bad idea and is likely to result in:

  • A loss of the opportunity to contest the case or to obtain a disposition which would avoid a conviction (as by court supervision).
  • Entry of a default judgment and an assessment of a fine and court costs, which, if left unpaid, could result in the suspension of your driving privilege.
  • An issuance of an arrest warrant for failure to appear in court.

Every effort should be made to make it to court on the assigned date. If you can’t make it to court on that date, it may be possible to seek a continuance to another date, but this needs to be done ahead of time. The circuit clerk (sometimes called the clerk of court) in the county where you received your ticket or were arrested may be able to supply information regarding a continuance.

If you miss court, you should call the circuit clerk (or clerk of court) as soon as possible to find out what happened in your case. If a conviction was entered against you by default, you may be able to petition the court to vacate the conviction and allow you to seek a trial or some more favorable outcome. The right to petition or motion the court to vacate a conviction must be exercised promptly, usually within 30 days.