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Simplifying and Lessening the Cost of Legal Services - The Denver Honoring Families Initiation and Resource Center

By Sandra Crawford, ISBA Standing Committee on Delivery of Legal Services

A part of the ISBA's Standing Committee on Delivery of Legal Services mission is to:  study, recommend, promote and conduct activities of the Association pertaining to mechanisms for the delivery of legal services to the public, including but not limited to legal assistance to the indigent and other methods of simplifying or lessening the costs of delivery systems.  Underlying this mission is the interest to insure access to justice to all members of our diverse community in Illinois.  The Institute for Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) has similar goals but comes at the topic from a research perspective.

IAALS is a national, independent research center at the University of Denver dedicated to the continuous improvement of the process and culture of the civil justice system.  "By leveraging a unique blend of empirical and legal research, innovative solutions, broad-based collaboration, communications, and ongoing measurements in strategically selected, high-impact areas, IAALS is empowering others with the knowledge, models, and will to advance a more accessible, efficient, and accountable civil justice system."  (See Special Feature, IAALS's Honoring Families:  Courts and Communities  Helping Families in Transition Arising from Separation or Divorce, Family Law Review, Vol. 51, No. 3, July 2013 by Rebecca Love Kourlis, Melinda Taylor, Andrew Schepard, Marshs Kline Pruett).  Much can be learned from studying IAALS' work, especially in the area of family law.  

IAALS' Honoring Families Initiative had the goal of advancing empirically informed models for the dignified and fair resolution of divorce and child custody matters in a manner that is more responsive to children, parents and families than what is currently happening in the legal system.  It's  research revealed:  (1) it is time for a national dialogue about feasibility of creating out-of-court alternatives (Alternative Dispute Resolution programs) for separating and divorcing families;  and, (2) that separating parents who provide their children with consistency, emotional support, and low conflict help children successfully adapt to the transition which is divorce.  

Professor Andrew Schepard, Editor Emeritus of the Family Law Review and one of the authors of to above referenced Family Law Review article, spoke recently at symposium in Chicago at DePaul University's Law School, called "Making Non-Adversarial Proceedings a Reality:  The Evolution and Impact of ADR in Child and Family Cases."  During  this symposium Professor Schepard reported on a two year pilot program at the University of Denver which adapted the recommendations of the Honoring Families Initiative and created The Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families at the University.  The Center received national recognition and the 2015 institutional Lawyer as Problem Solver Award from the American Bar Association.  The Center provided both legally oriented services (mediation, legal education, drafting and court document filing) and, mental health oriented services (discernment counseling, co-parent coaching, child or adult counseling, and transition support groups).  Another facet of the program was that a local judge would come to the center to enter the final judgment versus having to the parties (often working people who could not afford to take unpaid leave) go to the Courthouse.

The eligibility for services at the Center were that both parents must have:  (1) an interest in participating in the program and cooperating with the other parent on services;  (2) a case or potential case pending in Colorado; and (3) no history of parental litigation.  Also, neither parent (after intake screening) could have:  (1) an extensive history of mental issues; (2) a history of substance abuse; or (3) a history of domestic violence or child abuse and neglect.  The data collected over the two years of the pilot showed statistically significant improvements in many areas, such as:  decrease in levels of acrimony, improved communications between parents, increased cooperation between parents; increased degree of confidence in the parenting relationship. A simplified interpretation of these findings might be that access to ADR and justice translates into a more cooperative civil society.  Similar projects and initiative might be championed by this Committee and recommended to the Board of Governors and Assembly.  In addition, it would be lovely to see ADR programs within Illinois, similar to IAALS's, be recognized with an ISBA Problem Solver Award - both at the institutional and individual level.  This may in turn bring wider visibility to the value ADR models have in simplifying the delivery and/or lessening the costs of delivery of legal services and therefore allowing greater access to justice for Illinois' diverse community.

Posted on April 5, 2016 by Chris Bonjean
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