Three mid-shore nonprofit organizations are now working together to provide cost-free dispute resolution services to qualified participants. Mid-Shore Pro Bono is collaborating with Community Mediation Upper Shore and Mid Shore Community Mediation Center to offer mediation as an alternative to courtroom litigation.
The new referral service is funded through a grant from Maryland’s Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office.
Mid-Shore Pro Bono provides low-income individuals with free or reduced-fee legal services for civil matters, including divorce, separation and family issues, foreclosure cases, landlord-tenant disputes, small claims and tort defense. The agency serves Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot, Caroline and Dorchester counties, connecting qualified litigants with attorneys who donate their services.
For Executive Director Sandy Brown, the collaboration with the mediation centers will help keep the focus of Mid-Shore Pro Bono on finding volunteer attorneys for clients whose cases can only be resolved within the court system.
Many cases can be settled through mediation alone, where parties involved come together with trained mediators in a neutral setting. Participants discuss their dispute and work out a solution agreeable to all. Community Mediation Upper Shoreserves Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. Mid Shore Community Mediation Center serves Caroline, Dorchester and Talbot counties.
While Mid-Shore Pro Bono’s services are limited to clients within set income guidelines, the mediation centers’ services are available to everyone. Being able to refer cases to one of the mediation organizations allows Brown to help even those whose income or assets are above the agency’s limits, but who still may not be able to afford an attorney.
Mid-Shore Pro Bono’s caseload has grown significantly since the agency moved from Centreville to its new, more accessible location in downtown Easton. Brown attributes that increase both to greater visibility and to the difficult economy.
“There has been an enormous influx of civil cases,” she said. “Mediation is an appropriate alternative for many of them and can keep participants from ever entering a courtroom.”
Jim Richardson is a Queen Anne’s County attorney and trained mediator who volunteers twice a month at Mid-Shore Pro Bono. Immediate past national president of the Federal Bar Association, he countered the perception that attorneys do not support mediation.
“Most attorneys are not opposed to mediation,” he explained. “However, they can be opposed to solving problems any way that is not the way they know. Most family lawyers are trial attorneys and think in terms of winning and losing. Mediation is a win-win process.”
“Both Mid-Shore Pro Bono and the mediation centers are working with people who would not otherwise have access to legal services,” added Brown. “We’re not taking cases from attorneys or paid mediators. We’re taking cases that would have slipped through the cracks.”
Richardson noted that judges are very supportive of mediation. “The court system is becoming clogged,” he said. “Talk to any Federal District Judge and they will say that alternative dispute resolution is the greatest thing that’s happened to American jurisprudence.”
Penni Doyle, Executive Director of Community Mediation Upper Shore, described getting to mediation as a matter of educating the public. “Most people think either in terms of Jerry Springer or Judge Judy,” she said. “There is a third option. You can talk and come up with a solution that really solves the problem.”
The legal system is not necessarily left out of the mediation process. “If people write an agreement in mediation,” said Peter Taillie, Executive Director of Mid Shore Community Mediation Center, “they may want that agreement to be signed off on by an attorney.” In that situation, the case may be referred back to Mid-Shore Pro Bono for legal services.
The mediation centers are ready for the cases headed their way. Doyle has 35 to 40 trained, volunteer mediators working with her center, while Taillie has more than seventy. Both are eager to work with Mid-Shore Pro Bono.
Taillie described the collaboration as a classic case of the courts, community service agencies and legal nonprofits working together to provide the most appropriate service for each individual. “It’s unprecedented,” he added.
“It’s all about being effective and efficient,” said Brown. “We would like to preempt unnecessary litigation and focus on those cases that really cannot be resolved in mediation. Working together, we can help make sure no one slips through the cracks.”
For more information, call Mid-Shore Pro Bono at 410-690-4890 or visit www.midshoreprobono.org.