State judges have had the authority to force out-of-court decisions in contested divorces for nearly two years.
But until last week, Circuit Court officials relied on an informal network of professional mediators when they forced parties in a divorce hearing to work out custody or visitation disputes on their own.
Court Administrator Bobbie L. Erb and an independent group of lawyers and counselors on Friday interviewed eight people interested in serving as qualified mediators in custody and visitation disputes.
"Once they've been selected, there will be a consistent source of people to refer to for custody and visitation," Erb said.
The mediators are used to help settle child custody issues outside a courtroom setting.
While the concept of mediation is not new to the legal community, judges have been allowed to force parties in divorce cases to use that method only since July 1990.
Mediation allows a couple -- or two parties involved in any legal dispute -- to hammer out agreements without the use of lawyers.
A mediator, unlike an arbitrator or a judge, allows people to arrive at their own decisions.
"We've been very pleased with the results of cases we've sent to mediators so far," said Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. "We're very happy anytime parties can resolve their own issues."
One of the benefits of mediation, legal experts say, is the likelihood of satisfying both parties in a dispute.
"We're beginning to see this as a process with a lot of benefits," said Connie Davis, a law clerk to Judge Burns."It's empowering, letting parties resolve their own differences.
"They're usually happier with the outcome, and we're happy, because if mediation is successful, that's one less case that needs to come tocourt."
Mediation has been an option for years, but it has only been since the 1990 change in the law that judges have been able to impose mediation in contested divorce proceedings, and only to determine custody and visitation.
When a judge imposes mediation under theprovisions of that law, only two sessions can be ordered.
Should the judge determine that the process is leading toward a resolution, two more sessions can be required.
The parties may agree to mediation at any time and in any case, Burns said.
But, should the mediation not lead anywhere, a judge will be called on to make the decisions for the parties.
The process is confidential, much like the conversations between a lawyer and a client. Nothing said in mediation hearings is admissible in court if the sessions are not successful.
Mediation often is less expensive than going to court. While each party would have to pay their lawyers about $100 an hour, they would split the mediator's $75-per-hour fee.
By forming the panel of mediators, the Circuit Court will be able to screen cases as they are filed rather than when they get to court, Davis said.
"Our hope would be to look at these cases and try and identify which are good candidates for mediation," she said.
"The more cases we can resolve this way, the better."
Erb said the interview and evaluation process should take about a week or two, and the panel of mediators should be in place by March.