Mediating legal relief

A new civil court alternative aims to help resolve cases for those who can’t afford an attorney, and relieve the clogged court system

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Marathon County Judge Greg Strasser and Judicare attorney Randy Westgate are behind a new civil court mediation alternative that could help unclog the court system while helping low-income litigants.

A new program starting in March could help reduce the amount of small claims trials and lend some relief to a clogged court system in Marathon County, while giving the poor some needed legal help.

Judicare, a nonprofit legal assistance agency for low-income people, is partnering with Marathon County judges to start a volunteer mediation program. It’s modeled on a similar one in Winnebago County, which diverts 500 cases per year and has seen a 75% success rate, says Judicare attorney Randy Westgate.

Under the program, low-income people involved in any small claims civil case (other than one pertaining to family law) would have an initial appearance, then be given the option to undergo mediation—instead of going to trial— with one of a team of volunteers. One advantage, besides avoiding a trial, is that it allows for more than a yes/no answer, Westgate says. In a landlord-tenant dispute, for example, mediation could work out a partial agreement on back rent or how long to give someone in an eviction. Typically, a court can decide only to grant the plaintiff’s motion or rule against it.

“Mediation allows these litigants the ability to make better use of the small claims process,” says Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Greg Strasser, a supporter of the project. “By giving them the opportunity to explain and explore resolution of their case, without having to go through the stress or possible expense of a trial.”

The program is needed to help low-income individuals who can’t afford attorneys. Roughly 80% of the people who enter small claims court are considered ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). And the growing number of pro se litigants—those without an attorney— “is a growing problem in Marathon County Circuit Court,” Westgate says.

Judicare, which serves individuals in 33 counties and 11 Native American tribes in Wisconsin, secured funding for the program from a variety of local foundations, the State Bar of Wisconsin Pro Bono Program, Ruder Ware law firm and other donors, Westgate says.

The next step is finding volunteers. And they shouldn’t necessarily be attorneys, Westgate says. Who would qualify? Generally people who are educated, professional and empathetic, Westgate says. Retired professionals could be a good fit, or working-age people with some time to spare. Volunteer time is flexible, but Judicare is asking for a one-year commitment.

Volunteer mediation even caught the attention of Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger, who says he’d like to volunteer in his off time. Karger also might suggest it to county employees as a professional development tool because mediation skills have farther reaching benefits.

The program is slated to begin March 21 and has 11 mediators trained so far. Ultimately organizers hope to have about 20 or more volunteer mediators, Westgate says. Those interested would have a weeklong, 40-hour training session April 2-6 in Wausau. Volunteers then undergo eight hours of observation and eight hours of co-mediation in April, May and June.

If successful, the program could be expanded to all 33 counties Judicare serves. For more information or to apply, email [email protected] or call 715-842-1681.