Mediation: An alternative to the backed-up courts

New JBA program will send volunteer attorneys to help parties resolve civil disputes.

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With entry into the Duval County Courthouse restricted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all but a few jury trials are postponed until further notice.

While a limited number of criminal cases are being tried, many people have civil disputes – conflicts between people and/or businesses, usually over money. Until the restrictions in place to ensure the public’s safety from the coronavirus can be lifted, it won’t be possible for them to have their day in court.

An option that’s available is alternative dispute resolution, also called mediation.

That’s when the plaintiff and defendant in a civil action sit down with a neutral party, the mediator, and attempt to negotiate a settlement without having to go to court.

The Jacksonville Bar Association developed a program that will launch later this month to connect plaintiffs and defendants with JBA members who are state Supreme Court certified mediators and have volunteered four hours of their services.

The program is limited to cases that already were scheduled for trial when the state’s courts shut down March 16 because of COVID-19.

“This is only for civil cases that were pushed off the docket by the pandemic. It’s a temporary program and it’s not intended to compete with mediators,” said JBA President Michelle Bedoya Barnett.

Craig Shoup, JBA executive director, said qualified mediators are donating their services to the pilot program in four-hour blocks per case.

Some have committed to a certain number of cases, some have committed to handling a case each week and some have agreed to offer their services as needed.

If the parties can’t reach a settlement, but feel they are close to resolving their dispute, they will have the option to continue to negotiate and pay the mediator’s usual hourly rate, Shoup said.

Barnett said the program is intended to help reduce the backlog of civil cases caused by the pandemic that won’t be heard in court until it’s safe to return courthouses to pre-COVID conditions.

“We don’t know if that will be six months or two years, so every case we can resolve is a win,” Barnett said.

The court will refer the cases to the JBA. The first group is anticipated to begin mediations within 30 days, Shoup said.