Oregon courts rely on mediators in many contexts. Mediation helps reduce the burden on judges, because it reduces the number of trials at all levels, from small claims court to the Court of Appeals. During this recession, slashed budgets caused the courts to reduce employees, hundreds of them, from low-level staff to unelected “Pro-Tem Judges.” As a result, the increased use of mediation has proved critical to a well-functioning court system.
Mediation benefits people, too. Mediation can offer solutions that a trial just cannot provide. In trial, there’s at least one loser, and sometimes, both parties lose. When the parties control their outcome, they often resolve issues in a way that works better than a judgment, which, after all, is just a piece of paper that the winner must then try to enforce.
Clackamas County recently began its pilot project for mediating small claims court cases. Under the program, the court directs 50% of small claims cases to mediation. If the parties settle, great. If not, they can have their “day” in court. Well, not really a day – more like 10 minutes, according to Judge Darling. In reality, “small claims” are not so small. People can sue for up to $10,000 without a lawyer in small claims court.
My Lake Oswego office is in Clackamas County, and I’ve volunteered to serve as a mediator for this six-month program. The county department for Resolution Services is doing an excellent job running the program. First, it provided an all-day training for volunteer mediators. Then, once per month, it provides an evening session to discuss the program and work on mediation techniques. After each mediation, program leaders gather the volunteer mediators to discuss what happened that day in order to improve the program and to coach the volunteers. Volunteers range from master’s degree students trying to get experience, to a retired mediator / lawyer in his 70s who wants to serve his community.
Last week, my mediation involved a very interesting situation. Confidentiality prevents me from discussing the details. But, it was clear that the lawsuit for $10,000 was just one part of many parts of the problems between these two parties. For them, mediation truly offered them the best way to get their issues resolved and move on with their lives.
Jeff Merrick, © 2012, Merrick Mediation Services