Mediation Week Helps Opponents Solve Legal Messes
Attorney James Craven didn’t get his usual fee Monday afternoon. After 2-1/2 hours of sorting out and resolving a complicated legal mess, he left the Spokane County Courthouse with no money - just a good feeling.
Craven is one of several professional mediators working for free this week in Spokane County Superior Court.
They’re trying to convince more people that they can get better results from mediation than traditional courthouse slugfests.
Instead of persuading a jury and judge, Craven and fellow mediator Kermit Rudolph spent their time practicing shuttle diplomacy in two adjoining rooms.
There wasn’t a single “objection” heard all afternoon.
In one room, Craven and Rudolph sat down with one of two men who had spent three years waiting to resolve a dispute over a traffic accident.
After 20 minutes of reviewing the story of the man suing for injury-related damages, the mediators moved to the other room to conduct a similar session with the guy being sued.
After several back-and-forth visits, Rudolph and Craven found common ground between the two men and their lawyers, who were also present.
They agreed money was owed to the injured driver.
“Because this is a confidential matter, I can’t tell you exactly what the payment will be,” Craven said later. “But it came out of traditional mediation technique - finding out what the parties want, then reviewing what the strengths and weaknesses of both sides are.”
Both had already realized, before starting mediation, that their low-priority case was mired in the courts, said attorney Tom Mix Jr.
Mix was representing the man injured in the 1990 accident. The injured man sued the driver of the other vehicle in late 1993. The case was moving slowly - extremely slowly - toward trial.
Earlier this year, Mix and more than a hundred Spokane County attorneys got letters inviting them to take part in Settlement Week, which takes over the courts while judges attend their twice-yearly judicial conference.
Mediation - encouraged but not mandated under Washington law - tries to reduce the time and money spent in solving legal clashes.
The first Settlement Week last spring took only cases dealing with family law. This week’s focus is other civil disputes, said coordinator Pat Morgan.
Nine lawyers, including Mix, came forward offering to resolve ongoing legal fights through mediation.
Morgan acknowledges the number should be higher. It will grow over time, she said, especially if the Legislature adopts proposals to require mediation in some lesser civil and family-law disputes.
Spokane County has about 40 trained mediators who charge varying rates up to $150 per hour.
Not all mediation is successful. Negotiations sometimes break off after resolving the dispute proves too difficult. Deals struck in mediation sometimes go sour, especially if the parties decide not to file their agreement as part of the court record.
The other eight mediations taking place through Wednesday range from a feud between neighbors over injuries caused by a dog to a boundary dispute involving property owners.
Those pushing mediation want to keep people out of the courthouse and out of trials.
“By having us present mediations in the courthouse, the court system is emphasizing that it supports this alternative,” Morgan said. “The courthouse gives mediation a sense of credibility and support.”