March 27, 2018
On March 22, 2018, the 22nd Judicial Circuit, in collaboration with Prairie State Legal Aid and the Illinois Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission, successfully held the first Early Resolution Program (ERP) session for self-represented litigants in divorce cases. Fourteen cases were invited to attend the session and 11 participated. Two of the cases did not have both parties appear and the remaining nine cases were “proved up” resulting in a judgment of dissolution of marriage.
The Circuit Court of the 22nd Judicial Circuit of McHenry County, similar to many other jurisdictions, has a considerable number of divorce cases filed by self-represented litigants. Nearly 30 percent of all divorce cases filed with the 22nd Judicial Circuit include self-represented litigants as both plaintiff and defendant and family law cases can be among the most protracted and stressful proceedings for litigants. Often without the assistance of counsel, these individuals struggle to achieve meaningful access to the court which translates into frustration for the litigant.
Danielle Hirsch, Assistant Director of the Civil Justice Division for the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts stated, “Last week’s ERP launch in the 22nd Judicial Circuit provides important proof of the concept: with proper screening by court staff and a limited amount of legal information and assistance during the court call, self-represented parties seeking uncontested divorces can successfully complete the judicial process with one trip to the courthouse.”
Information received from the litigants found the program useful and one indicated, “It was fast and easy, no stress for a horrible situation.”
Of the cases included in the call, the oldest case was 83 days old, the newest was filed with the Court just 18 days prior and the average age of all cases at the time of disposition was 53 days. The Court will continue to collect data to ascertain if the program is working as anticipated.
“I could not be more pleased with the outcome of the first session. This concept started as a simple conversation between the 22nd Judicial Circuit and the Access to Justice Commission and from that conversation we collaboratively created a program that provides access to justice, ensures expeditiousness, and promotes public trust and confidence in the judiciary. Eighteen people left the courthouse that day not feeling like they were abused by the system,” said Dan Wallis, Trial Court Administrator for the 22nd Judicial Circuit.
The goal of the ERP is to shorten the length of time from the date of filing to case disposition, which will reduce costs due to lost wages for litigants to attend court hearings, provide meaningful access to the judicial system, and reduce the number of case processing steps and hopefully the number of post disposition hearings.
Ms. Hirsch further stated, “The ATJ Commission commends all of the court staff and judges involved in this ERP pilot program, and we are thrilled to be a part of this ambitious pilot program to help parties avoid protracted adversarial processes, resolve issues with the assistance of legal professionals at the courthouse and save time and money for the court system.”