More Americans Try Do-it-Yourself Justice

By Paul Bush
American News Service

It was a humid evening in Brevard, N.C., but the atmosphere between the two neighbors was still frosty. Their last discussion, an argument over the property line between their homes, had ended in a fistfight.

The District Court judge in this community of 7,000, not far from the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway, had been reluctant to hear their case. He could find one of them guilty, but they would still be angry and still be living next to one another. The judge had decided to refer them to the Dispute Settlement Center, located in first-floor offices donated by the Methodist Church.

Two hours later, the neighbors had solved the conflict themselves. All it had taken was a little help from two trained volunteers, who in Brevard could range from a retired IBM executive to a worker at the local paper mill, to get them talking and listening.

"We find if we can get people to sit down and talk, we typically get an 85 to 90 percent success rate," said John Fenner, the center's director, who related the account.

Across the country in Everett, Wash., 30 miles north of Seattle, 74-year-old Gail Robertson has seen the same thing in her 10 years as a volunteer mediator. "In over 200 cases, I can think of only two that bogged down," she said. "If they're willing to listen, speak and follow the process, it works."

The process is community mediation, used at nearly 500 centers around the United States in everything from disputes over barking dogs to child custody battles. In a nation where everything seems to end up in litigation, it is proving a popular alternative to the courts. Even lawyers have begun opening private mediation practices, although many community mediators worry that this threatens neighborhood programs.

In Florida, community mediation is being championed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Gerald Kogan. Kogan has asked the state legislature to fund Tallahassee's Neighborhood Justice Center as a model program for Florida.

Going to court involves time, money and aggravation, Kogan says. "On most cases you don't need that at all. You just need to sit down with someone who's fair and impartial."

The first community mediation programs were established in the late 1970s. Today, most are nonprofit ventures that offer their services for free or for low fees, according to the National Association for Community Mediation.

Most centers enjoy the same success rate as Brevard's Dispute Resolution Center, said Larry Ray, the association's executive director. "Eighty-five to 90 percent of the time they achieve resolution," Ray said. "When researchers call back after six months, 90 percent of them say they'd use it again."

The process centers on volunteers, who receive between 20 and 40 hours of training. Depending on the center, they may also serve yearlong apprenticeships under experienced mediators. The volunteers act as impartial "traffic cops" ensuring that both parties involved in a conflict are heard. Once the two sides feel they're being listened to, they can begin negotiating a settlement.

At the Dispute Resolution Center in Everett, Wash., divorcing parents use mediation to develop parenting plans, now required by the state -- which has done away with traditional child custody arrangements.

In Greenfield, Mass., the Mediation and Training Collaborative sees cases involving everything from workplace disputes and landlord-tenant problems to conflicts over children's toys left on the sidewalk.

Relatively few -- 10 percent -- of those who settle their conflicts wind up back in mediation or in the courts, according to research cited by the national association.

Often, people who take their grievances to small claims court are offered mediation instead of a judge's ruling. In those cases the mediation success rate is 70 percent, says Tim Hedeen, director of the Dispute Resolution Center in St. Paul, Minn. With a judge, he said, if the ruling is in your favor, "the likelihood you'd get payment is about 30 percent."

Others emphasize that community mediation has reduced the caseload in courts. New York's 62 mediation centers, which are funded partly by the state, handle about 45,000 cases every year. "It's had quite a huge impact," said Tom Buckner, a Senior Court analyst for New York's court system. "The Family Court judges love this."

This impact on overburdened courts has led some states to support community mediation centers. North Carolina budgets nearly a million dollars for the 26 centers there. Michigan uses 2 dollars from civil court filing fees to partially fund its 28 community mediation centers. Texas, Oklahoma and California do the same.

Community mediation's success has not been lost on lawyers and other professionals. In recent years, private mediation services have been opening at a rapid pace.

"The problem with lawyers being involved is that they want to charge what lawyers get -- up to $200 or more an hour," said Melinda Smith, head of the New Mexico Center for Dispute Resolution in Albuquerque.

What's more, says Smith, lawyers have brought an emphasis on professional credentials that could undermine mediation's reliance on volunteers. "Lawyers are corrupting the process," Smith said. "The whole premise of mediation is that you don't need a law degree to be effective." Some fear that volunteers -- the very heart of the mediation system -- might be excluded in favor of those with law degrees. But leaders of the American Bar Association say that won't happen.

States are coming out with rules on community mediation but so far they don't bar nonattorneys, said Jack Hanna, director of the ABA's Dispute Resolution section. They do, however, require "training, experience and background in the field," Hanna said.

At least for now, community mediation appears to be not only surviving but expanding into new venues of contention.

In New Mexico, the process has been used to bring environmentalists, businessmen and women and the Forest Service together over logging disputes. In Durham, N.C., it was at the heart of community meetings concerning the school district merger between the mainly-black city and the mainly-white county.

Peer mediation, where students are trained to solve disputes, is being employed by increasing numbers of schools. Mediation is even proving successful in resolving truancy problems. "People like mediation because of how it works. It gives them a chance to get involved and to be heard," said Scott Bradley, director of the Mediation Network of North Carolina. "Mediation helps people to understand each other better."

Or as Kogan, chief justice of Florida's Supreme Court, put it, "It's the wave of the future."

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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