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Providing pro bono assistance after changes to the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act

By Mike O'Connor, ISBA Standing Committee on Delivery of Legal Services

By now, every Illinois attorney whose practice involves even a little bit of family law knows (or should know) that major changes were made to the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (IMMDA), effective January 1, 2016. There have been several excellent articles in ISBA publications summarizing and discussing the revisions, so, without getting into the details, what is important to know is that the changes are significant and involve matters of both procedure and substance. 

Even before these changes took place, the need for pro bono assistance in family law matters was great. Every judge and lawyer who works in the family law field knows from personal experience that many family law cases involve parties who are self-represented (or "pro se" in legal parlance); the 2014 Annual Report of The Illinois Courts reported that 75% of family law cases involve at least one pro se party. Numerous studies make it clear that the vast majority of these litigants are not going it alone by choice, but rather they simply cannot afford the cost to retain an attorney. This development has placed a tremendous strain on the courts, the public, and our profession. The good news is that the legal community has responded admirably. Many attorneys routinely provide pro bono advice and representation in family law matters, often working in cooperation with their local civil legal aid program or bar association. The court system has devoted considerable resources to ensuring that Illinoisans can attain justice regardless of the obstacles created by poverty, disability, language barriers, etc. Every Illinois attorney should take a moment to become familiar with the ongoing work of the Illinois Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission.

But what do the recent changes to the IMMDA have to do with pro bono? In almost all cases involving minor children, the new law requires parties to submit a "parenting plan" to the court within 120 days of filing for divorce. The parenting plan must be comprehensive and address all issues related to parental decision
making and parenting time, among several other statutory criteria. While most agree that this is a positive development in the law, the reality is that the task of preparing an acceptable and meaningful parenting plan will be difficult or impossible for many pro se litigants. The statutory requirement of a parenting plan is not
discretionary, and the courts are already beginning to feel the strain from the challenge of moving cases along in a timely manner. And, a well-crafted parenting plan will significantly reduce the likelihood of the sorts of misunderstandings and disputes that often lead to conflict and needless post-dissolution proceedings. Thus, the parties, the courts, and all of society stands to benefit from the investment of resources needed to produce a meaningful parenting plan. The good news is that for those attorneys who are willing to help address the need, resources and support are available. The civil legal aid community is offering free training about the changes to the IMMDA, including sample pleadings and templates.  

Even those attorneys who don't normally practice family law can provide meaningful pro bono assistance on this issue. As has been extensively discussed in many ISBA articles, the Illinois courts has made it clear that attorneys can provide limited scope or "unbundled" representation. This means that any attorney who is willing to learn what is needed to counsel a client about the issues involved in a parenting plan and then draft the appropriate document can provide that service, without any obligation to take on any other aspect of the case. For the reasons discussed above, that assistance, while requiring a modest investment of a volunteer attorney's time, would be of great value to the client and the courts. Please consider helping out. If you would like to learn more, please contact your local civil legal aid program; you can find contact information at  

Posted on February 1, 2016 by Morgan Yingst
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