In recent years, the body of case law concerning "subject matter jurisdiction" has evolved rapidly but unevenly. As a result, Illinois jurisprudence on subject matter jurisdiction has been bogged down in contradiction and confusion. In the midst of the legal fog, a family law practitioner is nevertheless well-advised to draw upon a body of law within the field that continues to be applied with admirable consistency.
To begin with, being mindful of the evolving nature of this field of law, an attorney should avoid drawing upon concept of "subject matter jurisdiction" per se. Instead, the better approach is to focus upon "judicial power/authority." Specifically, one should ask whether "judicial authority" has been "properly invoked" in the context of a particular ruling. If the answer is no, the judicial act is void and therefore “may be attacked at any time or in any court, either directly or collaterally.” See Sarkissian v. Chi. Bd. of Educ., 201 Ill. 2d 95, 103 (Ill. 2002)
Perhaps the most basic/established avenue of challenging "judicial authority" is rooted in the pleading of the opposing party. This is so because a given pleading limits/defines nature and extent of the relief courts are authorized to award. Stated differently, a given ruling must find a parallel/matching pleading.
Ligon v. Williams 264 Ill. App. 3d 701 (1st Dist. 1994), crystalizes the concept of “judicial authority” in the above referenced context as clearly and concisely as any other case. This is particularly true for a family law attorney, who is well-advised to read the case carefully so that he or she can apply its principles effectively.
Ligon states that "[p]leadings function to frame the issues for the trial court and to circumscribe the relief the court is empowered to order; a party cannot be granted relief in the absence of corresponding pleadings." Ligon v. Williams, 264 Ill. App. 3d at 707 (emphases added)
In a sense, the above cited language leads the attorney to work backwards. First, the attorney should analyze the particular relief the court has awarded. Second, the attorney should analyze the common law record to determine if the opposing side has filed a pleading corresponding to the relief the court has just awarded. In other words, the central question is whether there exists a “proper pleading” which contains a "prayer for relief" matching the relief the court has granted.
If the court has gone outside the pleading’s “framed issues” and “circumscribed relief”, the judicial authority has not been properly invoked and the resulting order is void. As stated in Ligon, “where no justiciable issue is presented to the court through proper pleadings, the court cannot adjudicate an issue sua sponte. Orders entered in the absence of a justiciable question properly presented to the court by the parties are void since they result from court action exceeding its jurisdiction.” Ligon v. Williams, 264 Ill. App. 3d at 707
Ligon v. Williams is an exceptional case for family law practitioners who believe the opposing party has been awarded relief without a corresponding pleading. It lists a bevy of family law cases in which relief was improperly awarded because "judicial authority" was not "properly invoked" in the first place with proper pleadings. In summary, if properly read and applied, Ligon’s principles are sure to add to the arsenal of any capable family law attorney.