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Illinois Counties Get Help Addressing Family Court 'Congestion'

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A pilot program in courthouses in Madison and Bond counties in Illinois is designed to speed up simple family court cases.

The Third Judicial Circuit received a $5,000 state grant to pay for mediators who can help people without attorneys do the paperwork to make agreements in those cases legally binding. The program started Dec. 1.

“We think it will reduce the congestion there and weed out those cases that can be resolved quickly so the judges can focus on the more complicated cases,” said Chief Circuit Judge William Mudge. 

In addition to clearing up space on the judicial calendar, Mudge said, the mediators allow people to avoid having to come to court multiple times, which can require taking off work and finding child care.

Mediation can also help provide closure, said Chris Rollins, who teaches family law at St. Louis University School of Law.

“Courts can sometimes feel very cold to people,” she said. “With mediation, I think there’s time for reflection. And sometimes that helps people see that yes, there’s going to be separation, yes this is probably going to be very emotional, but maybe we can part ways civilly.”

The mediators are only available in cases where both parties do not have an attorney. While they can help people reach a deal, they cannot order someone to do something, so they aren’t intended for difficult custody cases or those involving a lot of assets.

Mudge said court staff began noticing a substantial uptick in the number of people representing themselves in family court last year. He hopes to find the funding to make the program permanent.

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.