Instead of court, how about mediation?

(First published in the September 20, 2018 issue of City Pages)

A new alternative to civil court in Marathon County is so far a success, but seeks more volunteer mediators

Cartoon Stick Drawing Conceptual Illustration Of Angry Man Or Businessman Leaving Vigorously Convers

Cartoon Stick Drawing Conceptual Illustration Of Angry Man Or Businessman Leaving Vigorously Convers

A new mediation program now offers the possibility of settling disputes before they reach the criminal or civil court level

Wisconsin Judicare needs more volunteers for its civil court mediation program—especially since Judicare is now working with the Wausau Police Department, Marathon County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s office to refer more of their cases to this program.

Judicare is a nonprofit legal assistance agency for low-income people. They started this civil court mediation program in March and have since helped mediate 40 cases, with a goal of 200 for next year. With more cases comes the need for more volunteer mediators, who are trained especially for this purpose.

The mediation alternative now has about 27 volunteers; Judicare is looking to add 15-20 more, says Judicare lawyer Randy Westgate, who started the program here.

For individuals involved in disputes, “It’s effective and efficient and immediate,” says Westgate.

For the justice system, it helps free up the time officers and court officials would spend with civil court cases that could be resolved if the parties hash out their disagreements in another setting, Westgate says. “It’s another piece in the law enforcement tool belt that they can offer to solve problems when they arise.”

Mediation can be used with small claims under $10,000, return dates (when parties first appear in court) or landlord-tenant issues, says Westgate. The courts may also order mediation or it can be arranged by appointment through Judicare, he says. “The court commissioner can offer mediation basically by saying, ‘Here’s a chance to solve it yourselves.’ ”

Judicare this summer brainstormed with local law enforcement and the district attorney’s office for ways to refer disputes even earlier in the process to the mediation program. Now officers will offer mediation as a way to resolve issues between parties before it becomes something more serious legally. The program also helps reduce court dates, which help clear what has become a clogged court system.

As it grows, the program also has the potential to relieve law enforcement calls.

“It’s always in best the interest to mediate a settlement before it turns into a criminal cases, especially when it involves kids and family,” says Wausau Police Deputy Chief Matt Barnes.

Attorney fees are costly and if somebody can’t pay for legal fees, they may decide to manage disputes on their own. Barnes says that’s when police tend to be called in—to help with an escalated situation. As an example, he points to child custody issues in which both parties may have an informal agreement rather than an official court decision. “Almost on a daily basis a lieutenant gets called and has to get involved,” Barnes says.

The police department is moving forward with working with the Judicare mediation program, though it hasn’t quite been implemented yet.

“We are still trying to flush out some details and train our staff when it’s appropriate to use,” says Barnes. Having to field a call where legally an officer cannot do much isn’t the best use of their time, says Barnes.

Once referrals to mediation start, they will see how well it works, he says. “We are always experimenting and sometimes we get a lot of great programs that grow and are very useful. We don’t know what this will shake out to be… The family component is one way where we feel it will be useful.”

It could also help with things such as property damage complaints involving neighbors, for example, Barnes says. Complainants could call the police department to have a situation be investigated as criminal damage to property, or a mediator could find a workable solution. That said, “The police department has zero intention to use mediation to try and settle serious criminal matters,” says Barnes.

Volunteer mediators are trained to conduct productive conversations and don’t necessarily need a background in law. “Professionals, teachers, or retired lawyers are a great fit,” says Westgate. “This is perfect for somebody looking for some kind of community involvement and are still looking to learn things.”

The new volunteer training program will be held Dec. 3-7 in Wausau. It includes a 40-hour week of eight hour a day rigorous training, says Westgate. After that volunteers spend eight hours of observation and another eight hours of co-mediation with another volunteer. They are looking for people who can commit to mediating approximately two to three hours, twice a month.