USE OF MEDIATION IN THE NORFOLK AND VIRGINIA BEACH COURT SYSTEMS PICKS UP STEAM
Alternative dispute resolution, particularly mediation, has taken hold in Hampton Roads and opportunities for its expanded use continue to present themselves. With limited funding from the Virginia Supreme Court, each of the local courts take advantage of mediation to some degree.
In Norfolk, the process is simple. All contested petitions filed through intake are
placed on the docket. The day of the court hearing, Shartory Speller, Mediation Coordinator, will, along with any available Supreme Court Certified mediators, review the docket. Once the docket has been re-leased, the screening process begins.
Shartory confirms that all parties in the petition are present. They discuss the issues and confirm that it is indeed a contested matter. Once these requirements have been met, the mediator gives the parties a personal orientation and explains the mediation process. The parties are aware that the process is voluntary. If the parties are interested in mediation, as many are, Shartory informs the assigned judge, who determines if mediation is appropriate. If mediation is successful, an agreement is submitted to the judge, who then signs an order. If no agreement is reached, then the case is returned to the docket, and typi¬cally home studies are ordered and the case is continued.
Yvette Baker, a mediator with over six years of experience expressed her views. Ms. Baker particularly likes the more complex cases. "Mediation allows the parties to spend time going over each aspect of the dispute and reach a resolution." She asserts that parties often have unrealistic expec¬tations when going into the courtroom and mediation provides parties more control over the decision-making process.
Shartory Speller mirrors this view, "The best part of my job is helping people make their own decisions about important issues that affect their own lives."
Mediation is not new to the Norfolk courts. A mediation unit was instituted in 1984 by Court Services Director, Kevin Moran. The program was then staffed by two city employees. The program gradually expanded with funding from the Virginia Supreme Court and was ultimately turned over to the Mediation Center of Hampton Roads, which utilizes its own staff of mediators as well as independent mediators to administer the program. While a majority of the cases in Norfolk are from the Juvenile and Domestic Rela-tions Court, Circuit Court cases are also referred to mediation. Shartory is looking forward to working with Norfolk's newly elected Clerk of Circuit Court, George Schaefer, and Chief Judge Joseph Leafe, along with the other Judges as they look to expand mediation services in Circuit Court.
Similarly, in Virginia Beach the mediation program is thriving. Karen Collier, Mediation Coordinator for Virginia Beach Courts has found the ideal job. It is a career that combines her relentless pursuit of helping others with her interest in the dynamics of family and interpersonal relations. Karen finds that parties often come into mediation angry and disillusioned, and is thrilled by the empowerment people experience in helping to resolve their own disputes.
In the Virginia Beach J&DR all parties involved in a motion are automatically referred to a group mediation orientation prior to their respective court dates. At that time the mediation process is explained and the parties can determine if mediation is feasible. If so, the parties are able to schedule a mediation appointment and often the mediation process, with agreement, is concluded well before the scheduled court date. This creates closure for the parties and helps to clear nearly 160 cases from the docket monthly. Karen Collier finds helping families work through their differences, along with being able to work with the excellent staff at the Virginia Beach Courts are the most rewarding parts of her job.
In Virginia Beach, Circuit Court issues, particularly pendentelite cases, are also referred to mediation. Karen Asaro, super¬visor for the family mediation program for Virginia Beach Social Services, deals with many of these cases. She cites an eighty-five percent success rate in mediating con¬tested cases. Her department consists of five experienced mediators. Karen herself has over twenty-five years of experience in the field. Often in the cases she mediates the parties are represented and she finds the legal community very supportive of the process. In her experience, this is some¬times the first opportunity for the parties to sit in a neutral environment. Mediation alleviates the often adversarial nature of litigation and helps to create a sense of mutual gain. A sure advocate of the me¬diation process, Karen also helped to imple¬ment a successful workplace mediation program that assists Virginia Beach city employees in resolving disputes. Clearly, there are many opportunities for media¬tion and alternative dispute methods in the public and private sectors and as Karen stated, "Being skilled in conflict resolution helps to create a more civil society for all."
For more information contact Dave McDonald at 624-6666.
Governor Mark Warner has once again designated March as "Mediation Month". Recently the Commonwealth of Virginia has implemented mediation programs statewide for all disputes ranging from con¬tractual disputes, employment issues, businesses regulated by the State, as well as family matters in the court system.