So there you are one day, minding your own business and checking the daily mail. You suddenly come upon a notice from the Clerk’s Office informing you that a divorce case of yours has been scheduled for Courtroom 3000 (WHERE?) next Tuesday at 8:30 in the morning (WHEN?) for possible transfer into something called Family Court (WHAT?) You check your diary and see that your case already has a future date in another 3rd floor courtroom. You remember that your client did tell you about some criminal domestic violence case that has been filed or that one of your client’s kids has some problem in Juvenile Court but neither of those things has anything to do with you, right? Wrong. Welcome to Family Court. Since January of 2002, there has been a mandatory Family Court in the 18th Judicial Circuit designed to handle multiple cases involving the same family. This article will serve either as an introduction to Family Court, or hopefully, as a reminder to practitioners about the program. First, it will provide, some historical background about the program; next, it will describe how the program works; and finally, it will set forth some practical tips about practice in the program.
History of Family Court:
In approximately 1995, the judges in the Domestic Relations Division, and particularly Judge Bob Anderson, began investigating the possibility of creating a single court call to handle those situations where one family had multiple cases pending in different courtrooms throughout the building. These cases were assigned to different judges on different dates. Judge Anderson formed a task force to look into the possibility of developing a program by which these cases could be coordinated for scheduling and resolution purposes. After months of study, including looking at a variety of programs in place in a number of other jurisdictions, and after input from members of the bar, the Circuit Judges approved a pilot program that would attempt to monitor user satisfaction, speed of resolution, and elimination of multiple court dates in those situations. Grant money was received and a contract was entered into between the 18th Judicial Circuit and Northwestern University to provide the monitoring, review, and eventual follow-up recommendations. The original period for the pilot program was extended to the middle of 2001. At that time, a decision was made by the Circuit Judges with the input of the judges handling the cases included in the pilot program that there were sufficient benefits to the program to warrant making Family Court a mandatory program within the circuit. Those benefits included the reduction of court appearances by the parties, the resulting reduced legal fees and reduced loss of time from work for the parties, a more streamlined scheduling process for both the parties and their counsel, and an increase in the information base for the judges hearing the cases. Thus the Circuit judges passed Local Court Rule 15.20, which provides as follows:
(a) By vote of the Circuit Court Judges on October 16, 2001, the "Pilot Program" designation is removed, and Family Court is hereby established as an ongoing program of the 18th Judicial Circuit. Cases shall be eligible for Family Court when there is a pre-decree "D" case (i.e. divorce case or legal separation case) pending, and at least one other case involving family members or persons having a relationship as set out in 725 ILCS 5/112A-3(3) pending as a Domestic Violence case, or a juvenile case involving truancy, abuse, delinquency and neglect, or minors requiring authoritative intervention. For juvenile cases, the following shall be reasons not to transfer the cases to Family Court:
(1) When a Petition to Terminate Parental Rights is on file;
(2) When the minor has been committed to the Department of Corrections with or without a stay order;
(3) When a Petition to Transfer to Criminal Court has been or will soon be filed.
(b) The Supervising Secretary of the Domestic Relations Division shall be the Family Court Coordinator. When two or more cases as indicated above are eligible for Family Court, the coordinator shall identify the eligible package of cases to the Family Court Judge, and as instructed by the Family Court Judge, prepare proposed court orders transferring those cases to the Family Court.
(c) A copy of the proposed order transferring the "D" shall be immediately provided to the assigned judge of that case. Within 48 hours, the "D" judge shall consider transfer of that case to Family Court. If the "D" judge has had substantial contacts with that case, and decides it is judicially expedient to keep the case, that judge may contact the coordinator within that 48-hour period, and decline transfer to Family Court. If transfer is declined, no notices will be sent, and all cases shall remain as previously scheduled. If transfer is not declined, the coordinator shall send formal notices for the entry of the transfer orders by the Family Court Judge to all of the previously assigned judges, the parties, and attorneys of record for the cases.
(d) If the next scheduled date for the selected "D" case is within the appropriate schedule for the Family Court, the coordinator shall specify that date in the notice. If a different date is necessary, the coordinator will ask the Family Court Judge to order a new court date. The Family Court Judge will not be asked to change court dates set on warrants, bond receipts or given in Bond Court.
(e) When a Motion for Substitution of Judge is granted on Family Court cases, all cases combined to comprise the eligible package shall be transferred together to another judge in the Domestic Relations Division.
(f) Each of the cases transferred into Family Court shall remain before the
Family Court Judge until it has been resolved. After a Decree has been entered in the "D" case, the Family Court Judge shall enter an order reassigning it to the originally assigned "D: judge for post-decree proceedings.
How Family Court Works:
The process by which cases are brought into Family Court is relatively simple. Twice per month, the Clerk’s Office generates a report for the Family Court Judge of all new criminal and civil filings by name of the parties to those cases. That report also provides a cross reference to any other pending cases, whether civil or criminal, which involve a party with the same or similar name. As can be imagined, these lists are quite lengthy. They are forwarded to a court volunteer for preliminary screening and returned to the Family Court Coordinator with possible matched sets of cases identified. The Family Court Coordinator then verifies through review of the Clerk’s records that the cases are still in fact pending and unresolved and notifies the Family Court Judge. The Family Court Judge then sends notice to the assigned "D" case judge, pursuant to Rule 15.20(c), that the case is Family Court eligible. If that judge does not decline to transfer the case, notice is sent to all parties and/or counsel of record of a future date for transfer of all cases into Family Court. On that date, again so long as no otherwise eligible case has been resolved by final order, the cases will be transferred to Courtroom 3000 for all future proceedings. The order transferring the cases into Family Court automatically strikes any future court dates in any other courtrooms. If any otherwise eligible case has been resolved with a final order such as a judgment for dissolution or a plea agreement or nolle prosse order, then the other unresolved cases will not be transferred into Family Court and any future dates remain in the other courtrooms. As a matter of practice, cases transferred into Family Court for each family are assigned a future date on all matters, usually for a conference or setting date. Usually, though not always, the criminal matter follows the divorce matter until the divorce matter is resolved. Persuant to Rule 15.20(f), all matters remain in Family Court until all pending cases are resolved by way of a final order. Once all matters are resolved by a final order, the "D" case is returned to its original courtroom for any post-decree issues that may arise in the future. Counsel who believe that a set of cases may be eligible for Family Court and who have not otherwise been notified may also contact the Family Court Coordinator to begin the above-described procedure. This program is mandatory for all eligible cases and contrary to the provisions of the pilot program, there is no "opt out" possibility. Substitution of judges is covered by Rule 15.20 (e).
Practice Tips for Family Court:
There have been and are some concerns about the Family Court. Most of them have to do with the concept of mixing civil and criminal cases with their differing burdens of proof, strategies and the like together in one place before one judge. Frequently there may be multiple counsel involved as well. The State’s Attorney’s office is required to provide coverage for an extra court room and occasionally the Public Defender’s office provides counsel. Most of these concerns have proven to be manageable. By generally having the divorce case proceed first, most of the criminal matters resolve relatively easily by plea or other mutually agreeable disposition. By scheduling all matters on the same date and in the same place, conferences have proven to be quite effective in resolving all matters at the same time. The State’s Attorney sits in on the pretrial conferences on the divorce case and that usually gives him or her the opportunity to assess the criminal case in light of more factors than only those contained in the police report or complaint. Divorce attorneys also have the opportunity to informally assess the situation concerning their client’s criminal case.
Scheduling questions are sometimes raised as well. In Courtroom 3000, Family Court matters are scheduled on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the morning with "D" cases heard at 9:00 a.m., "DV" cases heard at 10:00 a.m. and Juvenile matters heard at 11:00 a.m. Trials are heard in the afternoons or on Fridays. Pretrial conferences are usually held at 8:30 am on Tuesday, Thursday or Friday.
The most important practice tip I can give to all practitioners in Family Court is to be there on time with your clients prepared to discuss and if necessary to argue the case when it is scheduled. For the divorce portion of the pending matter, the same rules for discovery, notice and presentation of financial declarations, pretrial and trial memos and other documents apply to Family Court as to all the other divorce proceedings. Try also to prepare your clients about the purpose and rules of Family Court. It is intended to be a help not a hindrance to them and to the practitioner as well. Be ready to discuss the issues that are in dispute and the client’s desires as to those issues. If child custody is at issue, the same rules as to mediation and evaluation apply as in the other courtrooms. In fact, everything is the same as it would be in other courtrooms except for the reality that the clients have all their pending matters in one place at one time before one judge instead of being spread out in different rooms on different dates before different judges.
Hopefully, as a result of this article, practitioners in areas of the law impacted by Local Court Rule 15.20 now have a better understanding of how Family Court works, why the 18th Judicial Circuit has implemented it, and what each of them can do to assist the Family Court in bringing cases to resolution in a manner that is less costly, more efficient, and more information- based. If so, then the next time you receive that notice from the Clerk’s office, you will truly feel more welcomed to Family Court.
The Honorable C. Stanley Austin is a Circuit Judge for the 18th Judicial Circuit and the Supervising Judge for the Juvenile Division. He received his B.A. with Honors in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1975 and his J.D. from DePaul University College of Law in 1979.