Mediation program celebrates 20 years

Legal community honors co-founder and center

Anne Arundel

December 05, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee can recall a time when Anne Arundel County's courts were clogged with what he called "dogs running large" cases.

These cases -- in which neighbors accuse neighbors of letting their dogs run loose -- were not well-suited for resolution in court. "They would go on for hours and hours before they were decided," Weathersbee said. "And then, months later, they'd be back in court again."

Which is why, 20 years ago, Weathersbee used a six-month grant from the county to help start the State's Attorney's Office Mediation Center. It is one of 16 such centers in the state that bring parties together to help resolve their differences out of court, free of charge.

Last night, about four dozen attorneys, judges and other members of the county's legal community gathered to honor the center and its director and co-founder, Nancy Hirshman, on their 20th anniversary.

Since its inception, the center has diverted what Hirshman estimates to be about 10,000 cases from court. It also has expanded its caseload over the years from petty neighborhood disputes to such issues as estate battles, visitation rights and minor assaults.

"We deal with what I call `people problems,' " said Hirshman, who speaks with the calming voice of a conciliator. "The thread that binds all our cases is that they are ones in which you want to preserve relations, whether they are between family members, clients and vendors or neighbors."

In doing so, the center has freed up the court's docket from long-simmering disputes -- those that can't be settled with a verdict of guilt or innocence.

"The court, with all due respect, is very poor in solving these types of problems," Weathersbee said. "Mediation gets to the underlying issues."

Hirshman said more than 90 percent of the disputes that come to mediation result in an agreement. If the agreement is not adhered to, the parties often end up in court. While most agreements involve money, some require more creative solutions. In some cases, all it takes is an apology.

"It can be as simple as `Bob, I had no idea that my wind chimes were driving you crazy, and I have no problem moving them,' " said Hirshman, who added that most cases reach an agreement in less than two hours.

Hirshman said the most satisfactory moment of mediation comes at the end of a meeting, while she is drafting an agreement and formerly warring parties begin to talk like old friends.

"Suddenly the chit-chat begins," she said. "And I hear `I've been meaning to ask how your Aunt Gertrude is,' or `Isn't your daughter getting married?' That's when there is such a sense of accomplishment -- when I know they can go home and be good neighbors."

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the state Court of Appeals -- who heads the Maryland Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission, which is working to form a community mediation center in every county in the state -- said that he hopes more parties will consider bringing issues to mediation.

"I think mediation has come a long way," he said. "In the future, I think people will start recognizing mediation and out-of-court resolution as something more than an alternative."

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