The American Bar Association has recognized the third week of October as National Mediation Week, which provides us with the opportunity to promote the use of mediation and related forms of collaborative problem solving. Mediation is an informal, voluntary, and confidential way for parties to resolve disagreements in a cooperative environment. Mediators are neutral third-parties who are trained to help individuals reach mutually acceptable resolutions to their problems. Mediation cuts down on expensive court time and can provide a less stressful and less time-consuming forum for resolving disputes. More importantly, mediation gives participants greater control over the outcomes of their cases.
The Alaska Court System offers free mediation programs in four types of cases: (1) divorce, custody, and visitation; (2) child protection; (3) adult guardianship; and (4) small claims. These programs have helped many Alaskans resolve their differences and have increased the court's ability to operate more efficiently. Alaska's mediation programs have received national recognition for their innovative methods and success rates.
Divorce, Custody, and Visitation
The court system offers mediation services for parents who have divorce, custody, or visitation cases. The program has received nearly 240 referrals this year. In the Early Resolution Program, mediators and volunteer attorneys help parties in newly-filed cases find solutions to their divorce, custody, and visitation disputes. Since December of 2010, the project has handled almost 600 cases, and 77 percent of these cases have settled.
Over 1,000 child protection cases across the state have been referred to mediation since this program began. Mediators help parties resolve disagreements about the social workers' case plans, foster placements of the children, and visitation with parents among other issues. Mediation has resulted in agreements in more than 80 percent of the cases referred to this program, often eliminating the need for court hearings.
Adult Guardianship and Conservatorship
The court system also offers mediation in adult guardianship and conservatorship cases. Mediators help people make decisions and create plans that will best meet the needs of vulnerable adults. In the last three years, more than 80 percent of mediations in this program have ended with an agreement.
In Anchorage District Court, mediation services are available for small claims matters. Mediation is offered by volunteer trained mediators, including Anchorage business persons and professionals, who assist parties in resolving the issues in their cases.
The Alaska Court System's four mediation programs have helped thousands of Alaskans find workable solutions to their cases. When parties are brought together to mediate their disputes, they often achieve satisfactory and lasting solutions. Reaching resolution through mediation works better not only for the parties, but also for the courts. Resolved disputes are disputes that don't fill judges' caseloads and courtrooms.
These mediation programs would not be possible without dedicated court staff and committed volunteers. Judges, magistrate judges, in-court clerks, and staff at the court system's Family Law Self-Help Center have contributed to the success of these programs. The Alaska Pro Bono program and Alaska Legal Services have helped recruit and train many volunteer lawyers. Volunteer lawyers, mediators, and coordinators have given freely of their time and knowledge to help many Alaskans reach agreements.
A fundamental mission of the court system is to operate as efficiently as possible. Over the past decade, innovations rooted in technology have made our courts more efficient than ever before. Yet one of the most promising developments for court efficiency stems from the commitment, determination, and generosity of concerned individuals who work and volunteer in the court's successful mediation programs.
For more information about mediation programs offered by the Alaska Court System visit the Alaska Court System's website at: http://courts.alaska.gov/mediation.htm or contact the Dispute Resolution Coordinator at (907) 264-8236.
Justice Dana Fabe is the Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. In January, 1996, she was the first woman appointed to serve on the Alaska Supreme Court. She is serving in her third term as chief justice.
By CHIEF JUSTICE DANA FABE