State panel backs more mediation

Method of resolving disputes used across state might grow

Move could cut caseloads

Aim is to end disputes before violence erupts or civil suits are filed

February 12, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A panel led by Maryland's chief judge is recommending a far-reaching infusion of mediation and similar methods of resolving disputes into everything from courts to schools and private businesses.

In a report issued this week, the Maryland Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission advises expanding mediation services, establishing community mediation in every part of the state and advocating conflict resolution studies in every school.

The idea is to defuse disputes in a variety of settings before they turn violent or create a civil case. Expanded mediation services could also ease court congestion, avoid long and costly legal warfare, and teach even the youngest students how to settle differences amicably.

"It helps us to reduce our caseload," said Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Court of Appeals. "It has the benefit of helping change the mind-set of the culture so that we are not so litigious."

In Alternative Dispute Resolution, known as ADR, methods include professional and peer mediation, conferences and arbitration. All are geared toward leading battling people to their own solutions, sometimes at no charge, before they insist that a judge impose a solution, and pay legal fees and lose days of work.

There is no timetable and no cost estimate for the ambitious plan. And the commission has its own issues to deal with, among them how to set and enforce standards for mediators.

The plan calls for increasing the 10 local community mediation centers across the state to one in every county or city jurisdiction.

Baltimore City's Community Mediation Program is among established programs to be evaluated, as state courts try to decide what constitutes success in mediating neighborhood and family disputes.

"The conflicts are there," said Lorig Charkoudian, executive director of the four-year-old center. Her program, which handled four tiffs in its first year, now tackles seven a week, trying to get neighbors to be neighborly and parents to live in peace with teen-agers.

She estimates that 80 percent of her mediations lead to an agreement and that almost 90 percent remain resolved four months later. One dispute involved people who had threatened to kill each; after mediation, they were planning a barbecue together. Another was a feud between two families that eventually involved an entire block; after mediation, all parties agreed to try a fresh start.

Not all mediation is successful. In one Baltimore County dispute between neighbors, the only solution was for one family to move.

The commission also plans to evaluate a mediation program run by the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office since 1986. Similar studies are examining workplace, school, government and court programs, using that information to start new ones.

Nancy Hardin Rogers, vice provost of the Ohio State University College of Law, sits on the national advisory board of Maryland's commission. She said the commission's approach appealed to her because it went beyond courts.

The Anne Arundel center handles about 500 issues a year; an estimated 90 percent of those are resolved. How many cases the program, which costs less than $100,000 a year, keeps out of court is unknown.

"The District Court can find beyond a reasonable doubt that one person assaulted another, but it cannot figure out who stuck out their tongue first at whom and why," said Arundel State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.

Rachel Wohl, executive director of the state commission, said Maryland courts are seeking $1.29 million for the coming year to pay for new programs and studies -- up from $500,000 this year.

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