Court-Connected Mediation in Ohio

Overview

The Supreme Court of Ohio began to explore mediation as a court service in 1989. The Court accepted recommendations from the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Dispute Resolution in 1991. These recommendations included continuation of the Circuit Rider Project (1990) and establishing the Office of Dispute Resolution Programs (1992), now known as the Dispute Resolution Section. The Circuit Rider Project helped six municipal courts develop volunteer-staffed mediation programs during an 18-month period. These courts then continued to provide free, pre-filing mediation in small claims and misdemeanor cases. Based on the model developed in the Circuit Rider Project, 18 more municipal courts have added volunteer-staffed mediation programs. Many offer mediation as a free, pre-filing court service. Others choose to set a mediation date between the filing and court hearing and some offer mediation on the day of trial.

Following a successful three-county pilot project to test the feasibility of court-staffed mediation services, the Court began offering start-up grants to courts in 1997, enabling them to hire a full-time staff mediator/mediation coordinator and clerical support person. These grants, to courts of general jurisdiction (common pleas courts), have funded an additional 37 mediation programs, servicing 46 counties. Once courts have demonstrated success of the mediation program, most are able to obtain permanent funding through local funding authorities. Courts may also collect an additional filing fee to create a mediation fund. A few charge nominal user fees. The Court intends to make court-staffed mediation available at little or no cost to litigants in every county by the end of 2005.

Early court-connected mediation initiatives also included Settlement Week or Settlement Day. These are specially designated times during the year when cases are mediated on an expedited basis. Volunteer mediators have also played an important role in augmenting juvenile court mediation programs. Staff mediators and volunteers help resolve status and delinquency cases at the courts, at community mediation centers, and at schools. Juvenile courts also offer other ADR processes such as family group conferencing, victim-offender mediation and teen courts.

The Court has collaborated with the Ohio Commission on Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management to provide funding and training for Truancy Prevention through Mediation projects. Court mediators go to elementary schools to mediate issues surrounding absenteeism with parents and teachers of children in kindergarten through sixth grade. A preliminary evaluation of three of these programs indicates they are cost-effective and valuable resources for improving school attendance and providing early identification of at-risk youth. A model for middle schools is being developed as well.

Divorce mediation is available at many courts and may include mediation of parenting issues only or property and financial issues as well. Services may be provided by staff at the court or through the use of roster mediators. Parenting issues are also mediated in many juvenile courts. In further support of parenting services, the Court has provided small parent education grants to support the development of education courses for parents. These mandatory courses educate parents about the impact of divorce on their children and provide information about mediation and other available services. Several courts now offer additional programs to provide sessions for children, for children and parents together and specialized courses to deal with issues of blended families and never-married parents.

Child Protection Mediation, Adult Guardianship Mediation and Juvenile Court Domestic Violence Mediation Conferences for offenders and their families are specialized areas that have received support through a variety of grants. Currently, a number of courts offer mediation of abuse, neglect and dependency cases and those in which termination of parental rights cases is at issue. Adult Guardianship Mediation has been well received in a small number of counties. The model used to develop these programs was developed by the Center for Social Gerontology in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Two counties offer Juvenile Court Domestic Violence Mediation Conferencing. This service provides mediation and other interventions to reduce out of home placements for youth charged in such offenses. A critical component of these programs is to build capacity of all family members to make use of non-violent alternatives.

Five of our most effective mediation programs are located at our intermediate courts of appeals. Staff mediators select and mediate a variety of civil cases, including workers' compensation cases. We also have a staff mediator at the Supreme Court who mediates tax appeals and original actions. Original actions include public records mandamus cases and other mandamus actions. Mediation resolves more than 60 percent of cases referred to mediation in the appellate programs.

Court Support

Regulation of the practice of mediation through statewide rules or statutes has been minimal, by design. One Supreme Court Rule (Rule 16, Rules of Superintendence for the Courts of Ohio) provides guidance to the trial courts in establishing domestic relations and juvenile court parenting agreement mediation programs and qualifications for these mediators. Most courts establish basic program guidelines through local rules.

The Dispute Resolution Section provides consulting assistance to courts in Ohio that want to create or expand mediation services. Such assistance ranges from providing model job descriptions for program staff to assistance with program evaluation. The Section arranges numerous trainings for mediators and court staff and provides information on standards of practice and best practices. While there is no mandate for any court to implement mediation programs or services, there has been a steady increase in both the numbers and types of courts that offer quality mediation services in Ohio.

For further information contact: Jacqueline Hagerott, manager, Dispute Resolution Section, Supreme Court of Ohio, 65 South Front Street, 6th Floor, Columbus, Ohio 43215-3431, (phone) 614.387.9420, (fax) 614.387.9409, or e-mail mediate@sc.ohio.gov.

Court-Connected Mediation Program Research

The Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Dispute Resolution began to formulate research questions in 1989. The committee's goal was to develop effective tools for monitoring and evaluating court-connected mediation programs. Questions about party and attorney perceptions of mediation have been an important component of the evaluation instruments. Beginning with the Circuit Rider Project in 1990, evaluations showed that parties were very satisfied with the mediation process. Similarly, attorneys rated mediation as a satisfactory or highly satisfactory process whether the case settled in mediation or not. Further, attorneys and parties found the mediators and the mediation process neutral and fair. Parties also felt that they had enough opportunity to state their views and control the outcome of mediation. These perceptions held across a variety of cases including, general civil, domestic relations, juvenile and appellate cases.

Mediation program design and implementation has been guided by analyses of data collected from more than 2,300 Ohio attorneys in 1994. Two findings were significant:

  1. Attorneys were more likely to write mediation clauses into contracts and to refer their clients to mediation if they had actually participated in mediation as counsel.
  2. Attorneys believed that mediation was an appropriate process for a wide variety of cases. These positive attitudes about the use of mediation were not related to the attorneys' practice areas. That is, they found mediation appropriate for a wide range of cases, including those within their own practice areas.

Evaluation of court-connected programs has shown that parties do not negatively perceive or respond to mediation if they are required to mediate by local court rule or court order. As long as the process that occurs during mediation is voluntary, parties do not have different perceptions of satisfaction or fairness from those who participate voluntarily. Also, settlement rates for court ordered mediation are the same as those for voluntary mediation.

Research is needed to determine the best timing for referral of cases to mediation. Evaluation of 1,000 civil cases mediated in three courts in 1997 and 1998 suggested that when judges selected cases for mediation they were "ripe" for settlement four to seven months after filing. Randomly assigned cases in the pilot projects were mediated about four months after filing. Settlement rates were different in the two groups (83 percent for judge-referred cases, 73 percent for randomly assigned cases). Random assignment may be more cost effective, however, because random selection saves judge or magistrate time by eliminating an early status conference.

Current activities include development of shorter exit survey forms, instructions for entering exit survey data into a statistical software package and development of key comparisons that will help local courts monitor their mediation programs relative to others.