Courts around Louisiana are putting low cost mediation to work for the benefit of people who can’t afford the expense of going to court. Orleans Parish is one of the most recent parishes to implement such a program, and I for one am very excited!
Before I went to law school I worked for The Pro Bono Project, meeting every day with people who could not afford the cost of a lawyer but who had cases that would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to litigate. I would try hard to find lawyers to volunteer to help them, and although there were lawyers willing to do the work for free, not everyone got the help they needed.
In Jefferson and St. Tammany Parishes, there are hearing officers who hear family law disputes and help the parties work out agreements in many cases. But in Orleans Parish, where so many of our citizens are unable to afford representation, the courts are overwhelmed with people trying hard to represent themselves, but frustrated because they are not trained to deal with the legal system.
Now mediators are lined up to work with both parents in custody and visitation disputes in the Orleans Parish domestic courts. Judges determine whether a matter is ripe for mediation, and appoint a trained mediator to talk to both sides and attempt to work out an agreement they can both live with for the benefit of their children.
The mediation is offered on a sliding scale, meaning the parties provide proof of their income and the hourly rate the mediator receives is then based on the parents’ combined income.
If the mediation is successful, the parents walk away with a Consent Judgment, which is a binding court document that sets out the agreement and is enforceable by the parties in the court. If the mediation fails, the parties still have the option of going before the judge for a hearing, where they can present evidence and witnesses, and make their cases for the judge to decide.
Mediation can be very effective at helping each side understand the other. Everyone gets a chance to speak. Everyone’s voice is heard. The mediator does not take sides, but tries to get each parent to consider the middle ground.
I am so motivated by the prospect of being able to help solve disputes without costly hearings that I will be attending training to become a mediator next month. The training is extensive; I will attend 40 hours of classes in four days’ time, and emerge ready to mend fences, or at least bring mothers and fathers to the fence line to talk to each other about the most important thing the two of them will ever have in common: their children. With a little mutual understanding, we can go home to our children knowing we have done our best for them, for that is the ultimate goal.