I am fortunate to practice law and mediation in what is known as the “largest unified court system in the world” – the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois.   Specifically, in the Domestic Relations Division (in other jurisdictions more commonly referred to as “family court’).   For about a month now, the Chief Judge of the Cook County Domestic Relations Division, the Honorable Grace Dickler and her staff, have been doing an amazing job of remaining responsive to the needs of children and families in Cook County (which has a population of approximately 5.2 million people). 

Since March 11, 2020, Judge Dickler’s office has issued about two dozen General Orders to address the continued and smooth operations of the Domestic Violence Court and Divorce Division in the face of, first “social distancing” and then, an almost complete courthouse shutdown.  This Court even found time to address “frequently asked questions” about the new orders to help practitioners more easily adjust to the rapidly changing rules in this the “time of Corona.” 

The Court also made sure that the “out-of-court” or “consensual dispute resolution” (aka “alternative dispute resolution” or ADR) options remained active and available.  Below is Judge Dickler’s response to the frequently asked question:  What options for mediation remain available during this time of reduced court operations?

“First and foremost, both of our standard court-based mediation options are still available, including (1) referrals for mediation of child related issues to Family Mediation Services and (2) referrals for mediation of financial issues to a private mediator from our court approved list (link provided below).  Both of these can be done using our Consolidated Referral Order (link provided below). 

However, in order to effectuate a referral to Family Mediation services during this time, the order must be emailed by the judge’s coordinator to Family Mediation Services.  The coordinators have been provided with the email address to be used.   Upon receipt, FMS will assign the case to a mediator who will contact the parties to schedule an appointment.

Second, we have added a new option that will remain in effect until we resume normal operations. As outlined in Paragraph 3 of General Order 2020 D 3, the Emergency Judge may refer a case to a pro bono facilitation / mediation session (not to exceed two hours) if she finds that the issues presented in an emergency motion are not emergencies, but could percolate into an emergency if left unaddressed.   The emergency judge will designate a pro bono mediator and the staff will contact the mediator and provide the mediator with the contact information of the litigants.  The mediator will then contact the litigants, conduct the facilitation session and submit to the court any agreement that is reached.

I am fortunate to practice law and mediation in what is known as the “largest unified court system in the world” – the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois.   Specifically, in the Domestic Relations Division (in other jurisdictions more commonly referred to as “family court’).   For about a month now, the Chief Judge of the Cook County Domestic Relations Division, the Honorable Grace Dickler and her staff, have been doing an amazing job of remaining responsive to the needs of children and families in Cook County (which has a population of approximately 5.2 million people). 

Third, the Center for Conflict Resolution (CCR) remains available during this time for parties to engage in free mediation via videoconference without a court order. You can learn more about CCR’s services and the types of cases they hear at www.ccrchicago.org.

Referenced Links:

The Family Mediation Services (FMS) is a Court annexed mediation service which is offered at no cost to divorcing and separating litigants with children (married or not).  The services offered by FMS typically consists of two 2-hour sessions and sometimes will include the minor children, if deemed appropriate by the mediator.  FMS also provides emergency intervention services for families when there are domestic violence or child abuse allegations.  However, litigation must already be on file for parties to obtain themselves of these services.  For parties who truly want to “stay out of court”, private mediation is the option and can be more cost effective and efficient than filing litigation at any time – but most especially now when the courts are closed for routine matters.

The Center for Conflict Resolution (CCR) – where I received my 40-hour mediation training in 1993 – is a not-for-profit mediation service provider in Chicago.  The Center was founded in 1979 by the Young Lawyers Section of The Chicago Bar Association to aid the local community in effectively handling disputes.  It was originally known as the Neighborhood Justice of Chicago.  It now has approximately 180 active volunteer mediators who have mediated, in the past five years alone, over 10,000 cases and provides conflict management training to thousands of individuals.  Its mediation services include landlord/tenant disputes and neighbor-to-neighbor conflicts.

So, why do I say I’m fortunate?  Because in a time of escalating conflict, I am grateful to practice peacemaking in a court system which recognizes and values “out-of-court” conflict resolution models, like mediation.  I am honored to be named among my distinguished colleagues on the Circuit Court of Cook County’s Approved Mediator List.   In this time of “physical distancing”, mediation services can be readily obtained online, via virtual platforms like Zoom and Skype.  Meaning individuals and families who want to maintain control over their futures and outcomes, while “sheltering in place”, can still obtain quality conflict resolution services (sometimes at no or low-cost) through the various mediation programs and private mediators available in Chicago and Cook County.

Several years ago, a judge colleague gave me a bumper sticker that reads “Mediate, Don’t Litigation.”  It hangs from my computer at my office across from the Daley Center, that I have only been able to get to once since the shutdown.  At this unprecedented time when Illinois courthouses are shuttered to the public, except for emergency matters, this slogan is more apt than ever.  Conflict has not stopped because of COVID 19, just direct recourse to the courts for people in conflict.  In fact, there are growing concerns that intra-family conflict because of COVID 19 shutdowns may be on the rise – musings on that are for another day and another blog. But for now, PLEASE MEDAITE, DON’T LITIGATE.

Stay healthy, safe and sane.