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Pending legislation aims to ease stress involved with divorce, separation

Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 3:27 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, March 30, 2013 12:19 a.m. CDT

Two proposed measures backed by a McHenry County Republican and local attorney aim to ease the emotional and financial burden that often accompanies divorce or separation.

Illinois Senate Bill 31 and House Bill 1029 would pave the way for the Uniform Collaborative Law Act, which would outline the process of using a model of conflict resolution known as collaborative practice.

Collaborative practice aims to resolve disputes respectfully, out of court, while working with trained professionals. The method would be more cost-effective to an already cash-strapped state court system and clients unable to afford the cost of ongoing litigation.

“This is a way of describing this complex process and keeping folks out of the courtroom,” said attorney Sandra Crawford, of Lake in the Hills. “[Divorce and separation] are times when people aren’t functioning at their highest. When you are talking with clients already in distress, you need to make sure they understand the alternatives to going to court.”

State Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 31 and an advocate for the act.

“Part of the problem I hear from my constituents is the length of time it takes to get into court and get things settled,” Althoff said. “This will be less time-consuming, and that’s appealing.”

Although some legal professionals have used collaborative process for years, others have shied away because lawmakers never defined it, said Crawford, who has used the method for more than 10 years and runs her own law office in Chicago.

The proposed measures would clearly define it, Althoff said.

The process begins with attorneys laying out all options for clients and their particular situations. If collaboration is chosen, they agree not to litigate, and a collaborative team that could include attorneys, health professionals, financial advisers and other counselors helps negotiate resolutions.

A key distinction between collaborative practice and litigation is if the trained lawyers cannot help the client reach a settlement, they have to exclude themselves and a different lawyer is hired.

“This forces us to not keep a foot in the door, and if we don’t resolve the issues, to not rush to court,” said Crawford, past president of the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois, a driving force behind the proposed legislation. “That makes all the professionals focus on finding a solution instead of going to litigation.”

Another difference: Unlike litigation, where attorneys and clients may deny divulging certain information, parties agree to full disclosure in collaborative practice.

“It eliminates, ‘If I’m not asked, I won’t tell,’” Crawford said. “Everyone commits to lay everything on the table.”

State Sen. Michael Noland, D-Elgin, agreed.

"This will separate out the representation so there are no conflicts when it comes to a negotiated settlement," said Noland, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill. "What we want to provide people is a way to work it out before turning to the courtroom."

Collaboration allows families to work out issues in a more timely and inexpensive fashion during a time when the court system is backlogged and struggling financially.

Oftentimes, those who choose litigation also find themselves back in court once a settlement is agreed upon.

“In family law, I have some clients who are back in court every Christmas making modifications of a parenting agreement because they didn’t get it right the first time,” Crawford said. “Collaboration isn’t for everyone, but people should have options.”

Crawford is expected to speak April 1 to the House Judiciary Committee about the act, and a vote could come later that month.

Hawaii, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, Utah and Washington, D.C., already have passed the Uniform Collaborative Law Act. Three other states, including Illinois, are considering it.

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