Settling out of court

December 19, 2006

You don't have to look to the Middle East or any other hot spot in the world to witness the terrible toll accrued when neighbors fight. Like obstreperous nations, individual families, too, declare war on each other. And sometimes, as in the case of two squabbling Howard County households described in a recent article by The Sun's Melissa Harris, the battle escalates so far out of control that it strains not only the collective good will of the community at large, but the ability of the police and the courts to cope with the combatants.

Fortunately for most Marylanders - who may on occasion find themselves at odds with family, friends or neighbors - minor disagreements don't have into devolve into the embarrassing Howard County feud, which has resulted in 13 criminal cases, more than 100 visits by local police and many thousands of dollars in legal fees over what certainly must be a torturous span of seven years. The best alternative to seeking redress through police and court intervention is the state's relatively new Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office, an umbrella program that helps steer residents toward resolving disputes amicably and fairly.

Proposed by Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, the state's formalized network of mediation services provides out-of-court opportunities for many people to settle differences, whether they involve property, business relationships, misdemeanor criminal charges or neighborhood feuds.

Mediation can't work miracles and it is most effective when the parties voluntarily agree to participate - the Howard County couples attended court-referred mediation sessions with little success. But when it does work, it can produce creative solutions outside what one may normally expect from the facts-only strictures of a court room. An added benefit is that mediated cases don't contribute to already overburdened court dockets.

Aside from its usefulness for the parties involved, mediation has a direct impact on demands for service from prosecutors and police. For example, a study of complaints filed with the Baltimore state's attorney's office concluded that 9 percent - or about 7,000 cases a year - were interpersonal conflicts that could have been handled through mediation. Another study, addressing the typical pattern of police being recalled numerous times to scenes of unresolved neighborhood disputes, showed that successful mediations saved police about nine calls per case.

Mediation isn't a cure-all for every dispute, but it can help prevent many battles from turning into full-blown wars.

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