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Grant-Funded Research Adds to Evidence on How to Make Eviction Mediation Effective

Eric Slepak-Cherney, November 21st, 2022

Last month, RSI reached the end of an 18-month grant from the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution (AAA-ICDR) Foundation. A primary goal of the grant was to provide guidance to courts nationwide about addressing the eviction crisis arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. As that project has come to a close, we at RSI would like to look back at what we accomplished, and learned, from the experience.

Our Eviction Mediation Program and Special Topic

The first focus of the grant was to help us establish a local court mediation program, serving Kane County, Illinois. While it may seem counterintuitive that a project with a focus on national guidance invest in a local program, our approach at RSI is to utilize our mediation programs as “laboratories” for the research and evaluation that is core to our mission. We have a long history of designing and administering programs, and as part of that work, we implement established best practices, set up robust monitoring and evaluation systems, and carefully and thoughtfully test out different approaches to help us achieve the goals we set for our programs. The Kane County Eviction Mediation program is no exception (See related article above), and it served as the basis for many exciting accomplishments of the project, detailed further below.

Our next big milestone was developing the Eviction Mediation Special Topic. Special Topics are collections of resources RSI curates around court alternative dispute resolution (ADR) as it relates to different subject matter (e.g., child protection mediation and restorative justice) or interested parties (e.g., judges and lawyers). For eviction, we sought to develop a Special Topic collection that was both topical to the present crisis and also highlighted the best research, guidance and tools for those invested in the development and administration of effective eviction diversion programs.

Blogs and Evaluation Projects

Throughout the 18 months of the grant, the RSI team was regularly blogging about our experiences developing and administering our programs, and what we were learning from others across the country. A few highlights from our blogging include glimpses into innovative program models in Hawaii and Philadelphia, and program design considerations such as working with rental assistance programs and cultivating buy-in from landlords. Additionally, a pair of Q&As with our Programs Manager Chris Riehlmann and our Kane County Program Coordinator Christina Wright provide a great look into what it really takes to make these program work day in and day out.

Finally, and most significantly, the grant supported several evaluative projects we embarked on over this past year and a half. We analyzed the results of our post-mediation surveys to assess whether our programs were providing procedural justice to participants. After reflecting on the steps we’d taken to develop programs and conducting interviews with key program personnel and partners, RSI published program implementation guides to give others nationwide a manual of sorts for building and tweaking their own programs. The project culminated in an evaluation of the Kane County program’s first 13 months (summarized in the article above by RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack), assessing program use, services provided, mediation outcomes and participant experience.

A Few Key Findings

The amount of information we have learned and done our best to share during the course of this project has been staggering. While any summation is sure to be incomplete, we’d like to leave you with a few key findings from the project:

  1. Integrated and holistic service delivery approaches truly made for better outcomes. Programs that took a comprehensive and progressive approach to combatting eviction saw more agreements and fewer evictions. Similarly, programs that brought more partners to the table, including social service agencies, advocacy groups, state and municipal representatives, and others, saw greater success. While eviction cases are ultimately resolved by courts, the underlying issues are economic and social in nature, and collaboration with entities that address those causes is highly valuable.
     
  2. Good eviction mediations take time. Prior to the pandemic, mediation in housing disputes, in many jurisdictions, was typically an event that took place on the day of the first court appearance and lasted no more than half an hour. Unsurprisingly, agreement rates in this context were generally low. A number of programs we worked with noted that utilizing a model where mediation was done outside of court (and the time constraints that usually entails) resulted in greater agreement. Allotting more time for the session gave greater opportunity to work through impasse, and scheduling mediation for an advance date gave parties the time to better prepare for mediation, including taking stock of finances, asking for support, applying for rental assistance, and consulting attorneys.
     
  3. Remote mediation, which is the norm for RSI’s programs and many others still, continues to offer mixed blessings for participants. The flexibility afforded parties by doing remote mediation meant many more parties could participate without taking a day off work, critical for parties trying desperately to pay back past due rent. On the other hand, our data noted that about 1 in 6 needed to borrow a device or leave home to participate virtually, and 1 in 5 experienced some sort of technical difficulty. Making sure that in-person accommodations could be offered to those who could not or would prefer not to participate virtually ought to be a priority to ensure access, and RSI did so with our Kane County program.

We are tremendously grateful to the AAA-ICDR Foundation for its support of this project.

Holistic Approach to Eviction Mediation Proves Successful in Kane County, Illinois

Jennifer Shack, November 16th, 2022

This article is part of a series of perspectives on eviction mediation program development that is being supported by the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation. The AAA-ICDR’s grant is enabling RSI to expand our outreach to court ADR colleagues working in the fast-evolving eviction field, and we are tremendously grateful to the Foundation for their support.

As readers may remember, the 16th Judicial Circuit in Kane County, Illinois, launched its eviction mediation program in May 2021, with RSI as the program administrator. The program approaches the resolution of eviction cases holistically, with referrals to financial counseling and legal services as well as mediation. Mediations are conducted primarily via Zoom, with some in-person mediation permitted. As part of the AAA-ICDR Foundation grant, RSI Research Associate Dee Williams and I evaluated the program’s performance during its first year. The evaluation included program use, services provided, mediation outcomes and participant experience. The evaluation revealed a program that is succeeding on all metrics.

We found that the program had a high rate of referral, with 578 (42%) of the 1,392 eligible tenants making contact with the program coordinator after being referred by the judge. Almost two-thirds of tenants who accessed the program were referred to housing counseling, rental assistance and legal assistance. Not all cases required mediation, and some cases scheduled for mediation did not take place; thus, 388 (28%) of eligible cases were mediated. Of these, 74% resulted in an agreement that avoided eviction, which translated into eviction being avoided through mediation in 20% of all cases filed.

Overall Positive Experiences

In post-mediation surveys, both landlords and tenants in general indicated they had a good experience in mediation: 61% said they were highly likely to recommend mediation to a friend. They also indicated they experienced procedural justice, with 73% indicating the mediator treated them extremely fairly and 80% indicating they were treated with very much respect. Their perception of whether they were able to talk about what was important to them was lower, however, with 54% rating this highly. Attorneys were more likely to rate their experience highly overall: 71% were highly likely to recommend mediation to a colleague.

The one area of concern is that 19% of parties who responded to the survey wrote comments indicating they believed the mediator was biased or not active enough in helping them resolve their dispute, which equaled the percentage who wrote positive comments about the mediators’ fairness and helpfulness. RSI is investigating this further, with the hopes of identifying whether certain mediators may need further training.

Access, Tech Use Examined

We also asked survey respondents how they accessed the video mediation, whether they needed to borrow a mobile phone or computer from someone, whether they had to leave their home to attend the mediation, and whether they had any technical difficulties. Approximately 6 in 10 tenants used a mobile phone to participate, and almost everyone else used a personal computer. Our sample is very likely biased, as those who have ready access to the internet would be more likely to respond to the survey; nevertheless, we found that only 2 of 49 respondents borrowed a device and three went to someone else’s home. Five attended from work. Ten of 56 respondents indicated there were technical issues during their mediation. These included problems connecting, bad connections, people getting disconnected and someone’s microphone not working.

Support Breeds Success

When I interviewed the judge and program staff for an implementation report on the program, I found the judge was very supportive of the program and that both he and program staff believed landlord and attorney buy-in was essential to the success of the program. The evaluation indicates that the judge’s support was instrumental to the program’s high rate of referral and that landlords and attorneys who completed surveys generally had favorable opinions of the program. These both support the general belief that both judicial support and party buy-in are necessary characteristics of successful programs.

New RSI Report Sheds Light on Family ODR for Thinly Resourced Parents, Courts and Communities

Susan M. Yates, October 26th, 2022

Do you have a project that you started before the pandemic that you had to put on the back burner in the face of many urgent tasks? I did, but not anymore! I am thrilled to say that RSI’s report, “Family Court Online Dispute Resolution for Thinly Resourced Parents, Courts and Communities: Impediment, Improvement or Impossible Dream?” is now available online.

RSI is very grateful to the JAMS Foundation, whose generous funding made this project possible. We are also thankful to many others who contributed to the project, who you can learn about in the report.

Why RSI Did this Project

Having worked with court mediation in its early years, in recent years I have been witnessing similar responses to court online dispute resolution (ODR). There are proponents who see ODR as a great way to make court systems more accessible, less expensive and quicker. However, some also have significant concerns about issues such as whether ODR will be fair and accessible, who will pay for ODR and what might be lost by relying on technology.

RSI wanted to sort out whether family ODR could improve access to justice for thinly resourced parents who were in court over child-related issues (e.g., parenting time and decision-making), which we know is an area of great need in many jurisdictions. We were especially interested in how family ODR might work in jurisdictions and communities that were also thinly resourced.

Structure of the Project

We created a framework for the project. It is a series of steps – each building on the previous steps – that walks through a process of considering what it would take for family ODR to be accessible, ethical, effective, feasible and sustainable.

To work our way through that framework, we:

  • Conducted research on the literature and the state of court ODR
  • Surveyed state alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and ODR leaders
  • Surveyed 37 national experts working in academia, ADR, court ADR, court administration, family law, funding, intimate partner violence, judging, legal aid, legal technology design, ODR, self-represented litigants and technology
  • Convened those 37 experts three times
  • Drew on RSI’s organizational experience

The data used in the report reflects the status of ODR in 2020. Because the project was already delayed by the pandemic, we decided not to continue to update the report as new programs were developed and new resources became available.

Tensions

Through the above work, we identified three tensions that must be resolved in order for family ODR to serve thinly resourced parents, courts and communities.

1. The desire to serve all parents is in tension with the limitations imposed by the thinly resourced environment explored in the project.

Courts have a responsibility to protect potentially vulnerable parents and ensure ODR is accessible and ethical. However, courts that are thinly resourced are unlikely to be able to provide the full range of services recommended by some experts to ensure ODR is accessible for all parents. The services include, for example, individualized education for each parent about their rights, personalized counseling for each parent about their best options, and one-on-one assistance while using ODR. Indeed, in our experience working with courts, it is likely that these thinly resourced courts would be looking for ways to reduce their costs by implementing ODR, not to increase costs because of a need for additional services to supplement ODR.

To address this tension, a safe tradeoff can be constructed by drawing on a long-established requirement of in-person family mediation. Prior to mediation, each parent must be screened individually to determine if a party has experienced intimate partner violence or other coercive behavior in the relationship that would make participation in a traditional mediation unwise. This need for screening is also true for family ODR.

This screening can be expanded to address the concerns specific to ODR, such as issues related to language, disability or access to the internet. The screener would assist the parents in finding ways to access ODR (e.g., how to involve a translator), would work with them to determine if mandatory participation in ODR is appropriate (e.g., in the case of an insurmountable barrier due to a serious illness or a violent relationship), and would help them access other suitable services when needed.

Screening some parents out of ODR will reduce the number of families that can benefit from ODR. However, it will also help to ensure that ODR is accessible and ethical for the parents who do participate.

2. There is a tension between the need for voluntary decision-making (to help make ODR ethical) and the need for participation (to help make ODR effective).

Neither the literature nor the gathered experts agree on whether mandatory or voluntary participation is inherently better. There is, however, a way to address this tension.

A safe tradeoff can be accomplished — as is sometimes the case with in-person family mediation — by requiring that parents who are not screened out of ODR try an initial ODR step. Because this comes after screening, it avoids requiring parents to use ODR if they are unable to participate in ODR or if they should not participate in ODR for any of a variety of reasons. It also increases the likelihood that a court ODR program will serve enough parents to make it effective by requiring that parents at least try ODR.

3. There is a tension between the cost of accessible, ethical, effective family court ODR and the ability of thinly resourced parents, courts and communities to pay for it.

The project pondered ways to resolve that tension, i.e., how to pay for quality court ODR. In the end, this tension could not be resolved. The project was unable to identify a feasible, sustainable path by which family court ODR could be provided nationwide to parents who need it via courts that cannot afford it.

Recommendations

The report resulted in nine recommendations.

1. Support family ODR
There is a need for family ODR despite the growth in family ODR and the availability of family ADR in some areas. There should be nationwide support for providing family ODR to thinly resourced parents, courts and communities.

2. Develop national standards for family court ODR
National standards for family court ODR should be developed and promoted. They should provide definitions; descriptions; guidance and, potentially, specific measurable criteria. The standards should articulate how to ensure family ODR is accessible, ethical and effective.

3. Consider how to assess whether family court ODR meets the standards
During the development of the standards, the question of how to assess whether court programs and vendors meet the standards should be addressed. For example, who would conduct the assessments? What would be the impact of any finding by the assessment?

4. Ensure every participant has a live conversation with a screener prior to ODR
There are situations in which some parents should not participate in ODR; therefore, every parent should engage in a live telephone or video conversation with a screener prior to using ODR. Together, they should explore whether: there was or is any intimate partner violence in the relationship; they have access to ODR; they are comfortable communicating in a language in which ODR is offered; they are comfortable with ODR technology; they are experiencing any mental illness or substance use issues that prevent them from participating in ODR; and they might need any accommodations as a result of disability.

5. Investigate the potential for a national program to conduct screenings
In many places across the country, parents are not routinely screened prior to family mediation. We see the same practice developing with family ODR. A national program is needed to offer screening that is affordable for thinly resourced parents and courts that cannot afford to pay screeners for ODR.

6. Require every parent who is not screened out of ODR to make an initial attempt to use ODR to identify areas of agreement with the other parent
Requiring parents to attempt to use ODR after screening will provide an ethical combination of screening parents out of, and mandating them into, ODR. It will encourage the maximum number of parents to try ODR, thereby increasing the opportunity for effectiveness, but not require parents who are unsuited to ODR to use it. Parents who do use ODR should not be required to reach agreement using it, but the experience of trying the initial step can also encourage parents to keep using ODR if they find it to be easy to use and helpful.

7. Provide guidance and model materials to courts developing ODR projects
Reliable, curated resources presented in an accessible format can help prevent courts from having to reinvent the ODR wheel. These resources could include, for example, guidance on how to determine what ODR processes and platforms to use, what standards to apply, how to select a vendor and what best practices are. These materials should also include model outreach and educational materials such as text for summonses, websites and communications with parents, as well as videos to which local court information could be added.

Courts also need assistance from experienced, knowledgeable experts to put those resources to work. Courts and communities with the least resources should be actively contacted, made aware of the resources, helped to assess whether there is a need for family ODR in their jurisdiction and, if there is a need, supported as they implement family ODR.

8. Enable courts to assess and improve their family ODR services
ODR platforms generally can provide regular statistical information on how ODR is functioning. Courts may need assistance determining what data they need, working with their vendor to obtain the data, and learning how to draw useful information for reports. Video mediation apps, such as Zoom, do not have built-in reporting mechanisms. Courts using video mediation will therefore need to devise other ways to collect critical data.

Courts also need to ensure parents are experiencing procedural justice when they participate in ODR. For courts using ODR platforms, this will likely require the insertion of surveys into the ODR system or the adaptation of surveys provided as part of the ODR platform. Courts using video mediation will need to survey parties about their mediation experience another way, e.g., by email or text.

Additionally, courts should participate in comprehensive program evaluations when possible. They should share results of these evaluations with other courts and with ODR providers to inform other ODR programs.

9. Investigate the potential for a national family court ODR provider
Although the project did not identify an entity that would be able to establish and sustain a national provider of family ODR, it is still possible that a resource-rich home for family ODR exists somewhere. Individuals and entities that are concerned with services to thinly resourced parents, courts and communities should explore whether there is a deep-pocketed funder who would commit to a multi-year national program.

Conclusion

This project investigated the study question, “How might family court online dispute resolution serve thinly resourced parents, courts and communities?” It found that family court ODR can be an impediment to access to justice if not provided in an appropriate manner. However, if it is provided in a manner that is accessible, ethical and effective, family court ODR can improve access to justice. Doing so will require standards for family court ODR, as well as resources to support the provision and evaluation of ODR. It will also necessitate comprehensive screening conversations with all parents prior to ODR, which will enable courts to require that all parents who are not screened out attempt at least an initial stage of ODR.

In the end, whether family ODR that is accessible, ethical, effective and feasible can be provided nationwide to parents who need it, despite limited family, court and community resources, remains an unanswered question and potentially an impossible dream. There is no clear path to determining how to sustain family court ODR services.

Use of Joint Session to Open Mediation Influenced by Lawyers and Geography

Dee Williams, October 18th, 2022

Historically, mediations would begin with a joint introductory session with all parties discussing the case together along with the mediator, and the parties having the opportunity to discuss their issues and interests directly in a guided conversation. Mediations would either continue in joint session or move into separate caucuses, depending on the course of the conversation and the preferences of the mediator. In the last 10-20 years, however, it has become increasingly uncommon for mediations to begin jointly.

In “Joint Session or Caucus? Factors Related to How the Initial Mediation Session Begins,” by Roselle Wissler and Art Hinshaw (Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution, September 2022), the authors report the findings of the first study to examine the relationships between the way in which mediation opens and a wide range of factors. It found that although many mediators suggest tailoring the structure of mediation to the needs of an individual case, the likelihood of mediation beginning with a joint session is instead tied to whether the parties are represented by an attorney, whether the mediator has a law degree and where in the US the mediator resides.

Wissler and Hinshaw note that there is significant disagreement as to whether joint opening sessions are still needed. Some possible benefits of such a session include that it would provide: a chance to explain to parties the process and the issues at hand and make sure all are on the same page, a chance to open channels of communication and foster understanding between opposing parties via face-to-face communication, and a chance for the mediator to observe the dynamic between the parties and establish a rapport. There are also some who argue that the existence of mediation-informed lawyers and pre-session discussions between parties and mediators, as well as the changing landscape of mediation proceedings (which frequently includes more “impersonal” civil and commercial cases with little or no pre-existing relationship), obviate the need for these sessions.

Many mediators and lawyers, rather than advocating for or against joint opening sessions, suggest tailoring the structure of the mediation to the needs of an individual case. They indicate that joint opening sessions may be helpful in situations where litigants may not be well informed about each other’s positions and/or when there exists a continuing relationship between parties. On the other hand, joint opening sessions may not be recommended if the relationships between parties are highly contentious, or when violence or abuse is involved.

Study

To examine the factors involved in how mediations begin, Wissler and Hinshaw conducted a survey among civil and family mediators with publicly available contact information in eight states across the US. They limited participation to those who had mediated civil or family disputes (outside of small claims or probate) involving only two parties within the US in the last four months. Out of 5,510 mediators who received an email invitation, 1,065 (19.3%) responded. Respondents were asked to focus on their most recent concluded mediation in their responses. Both family and civil mediators’ cases mainly came directly from lawyers or court mediation programs/judges.

Findings

Wissler and Hinshaw found that joint opening sessions have not been replaced by pre-session communication, as there is no correlation (or in civil cases, there is a slight positive correlation between pre-mediation communication and…) between whether litigants are present in pre-session communications and whether the mediation begins in joint session. Joint opening sessions have also not been obviated by litigants being more informed (either by the mediator in pre-session communication or by their lawyers) about the mediation process and the issues at hand. In general, issues discussed in pre-session were more likely to be brought up in the mediation session proper, not less likely – so these communications are not taking the place of communication in a joint opening session.

Similarly, the findings suggest that the way mediation begins is not strongly related to dispute characteristics (such as disputants’ prior experience with litigation; the presence of non-monetary issues in the case; or the presence of abuse, harassment, or violence between disputants). Joint session was more likely when litigants had the goal of speaking face-to-face (90% vs 70% in civil cases, 92% vs. 54% in family cases) or preserving their relationship (86% vs 63% in family cases), suggesting that it is more likely to occur when litigants have goals that are in line with a desire to communicate directly with the opposing party.

Several sets of findings address the hypothesis that lawyers generally do not wish for joint opening sessions. Mediation was less likely to begin in joint session when the mediator had a legal background or a history as a neutral evaluator (59% vs 77% in civil cases), or when one (67%-82%) or both (57%-72%) of the disputants was represented by an attorney, compared with when neither disputant had an attorney (88%-95%). It was also less likely to begin in joint session in cases referred from lawyers (33%) compared with any other source, and less likely to begin in joint session when mediators said the lawyers were the parties with the most influence over how mediation began (17%).

The state in which the mediation took place had a large impact on likelihood of beginning in joint session, as did the mediator’s history in terms of how frequently they opted to begin in joint session. Out of the states surveyed, mediation is most likely to begin in joint session in Maryland, New York and Illinois and least likely to do so in Utah.

Wissler and Hinshaw note that, taken together, the findings suggest that the recommendation to determine how mediation begins on a case-by-case basis, tailored to the nature of the particular dispute and the needs of the disputant, is largely disregarded.

A Q&A with RSI’s Virtual Eviction Mediation Programs Manager Chris Riehlmann

Just Court ADR, October 13th, 2022

This article is part of a series of perspectives on eviction mediation program development that is being supported by the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation. The AAA-ICDR’s grant is enabling RSI to expand our outreach to court ADR colleagues working in the fast-evolving eviction field, and we are tremendously grateful to the Foundation for their support.

RSI conducts three virtual mediation programs in northern Illinois. The programs are supervised by Eviction Mediation Programs Manager Chris Riehlmann. In this role, Chris oversees the administration, data collection and reporting, and ongoing development of the programs. He recently took some time to answer some of Court ADR Connection’s questions about the programs and his experience.

Chris, can you start by sharing a little about your background prior to joining RSI?

Chris Riehlmann

Education-wise, I received my B.A. and J.D. from Loyola University Chicago. During law school, I focused mainly on learning all aspects of litigation and criminal law. Following law school, I pursued my interest in civil rights by working with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office, and private civil rights attorneys in the Chicago area. My first real attorney job was for a high-volume personal injury law firm representing plaintiffs injured by car accidents, medical malpractice, slip and falls, defective products and more. This position gave me real experience handling cases from beginning to end while interacting with judges, opposing counsel and clients. 

My most meaningful foray into the housing legal realm was working for Open Communities, a fair housing non-profit in Evanston, IL. While at O.C., I led a team that investigated allegations of housing discrimination, took legal action against bad actors and educated the public on their housing rights. I also learned how eviction litigation worked and defended individuals who couldn’t afford an attorney. It was eye opening how quick evictions worked, with tenants showing up in court for their first appearance and leaving with an eviction order that same day. There was no chance for tenants to meaningfully participate in the process that was removing them from their homes.

After fighting for housing justice in the northern suburbs of Chicago with Open Communities for four years, I decided to expand my understanding of dispute resolution methods and joined RSI’s eviction mediation team. 

In general, what do you see as the benefits of mediating eviction cases?

There are plenty of benefits for everyone involved with the program, such as improving access to justice, legal cost reduction, promotion of judicial efficiency and more. However, the greatest benefit for mediating evictions is that the parties get a chance to breathe and discuss the issues that brought them to the point of legal action on a level field.

In my experience with eviction litigation pre-COVID, cases were decided incredibly quickly, with tenants either being evicted on their first appearance or agreeing to settlements under duress with no clue of the ramifications of their actions. On the other hand, if a tenant knew how the process worked, and had an attorney or faced a landlord who was unrepresented, evictions could potentially take months! Landlords could wait forever and a day for a judgment only to wait even longer for an overbooked sheriff to effectuate the order of possession.

Overall, mediation positively affects the timeline of an eviction by giving both parties an opportunity to efficiently have their needs met. Tenants can slow the warp speed nature of some cases so they can have a voice in the process and potentially avoid the most traumatic aspects of eviction. Landlords can speed up some cases to get a resolution in a few weeks instead of a few months.

Can you give us a broad overview of how the programs operate?

RSI has an eviction mediation program in three counties in northern Illinois: Kane, Winnebago and Kankakee. Each county works in its own nuanced way, but each program starts when the judge presiding over evictions refers a case into the program.

Once the program coordinator is assigned a case, they make contact with both parties to schedule a mediation. Before the mediation occurs, the tenant is connected to resources to help them in the eviction, including rental assistance, housing counseling and legal representation. The idea is to set the tenants up in the best position possible going into the mediation.

On mediation day, the tenant, the landlord and any attorneys sit down with a trained third-party mediator via Zoom to present their case. The mediator gives both parties an opportunity to voice their needs, to discuss what brought them to this point and to discover avenues of resolution. Any agreements reached are memorialized in the appropriate court order form and submitted to the judge for approval. Depending on the terms of the agreement, the case is dismissed or a compliance date is set in the future.

Can you tell us how the programs operate in a hybrid space? Which aspects still occur in the courthouse, and which are conducted online? Has any of that evolved in the nine months you’ve been with RSI?

The majority of all program activities take place virtually. The program coordinators in all three counties attend the court calls remotely, and the vast majority of cases are mediated remotely. The only physical presence we have is in the Kane County courthouse so we can interact with those parties face-to-face if necessary. In Kankakee and Winnebago counties, we are entirely remote, handling referrals and conducting mediations over Zoom. These programs were developed with this level of remote participation in mind, but we still have backup methods to interact with people who need more support.

What challenges do you see when it comes to participating virtually? What benefits?

At the risk of sounding incredibly contradictory, virtual participation both increases and decreases party participation. Holding mediations over Zoom offers flexibility for the majority of parties. People can hop on to a Zoom call while on break at work or any time that is convenient. In a situation where making money to pay off a debt is vital, this flexibility helps keep people on track with payment plans.  

On the other hand, some individuals are not very tech savvy and have trouble accessing Zoom through their phone. These are often some of the most vulnerable populations. To address this, we try to have a physical attendance option available. When we don’t have a physical presence at the courthouse, we rely on our social service partners to help people in person access the mediation either over the phone or Zoom.  

What have been some of the biggest successes you and your team have had operating these programs? Conversely, what sorts of challenges have you faced, and what have you learned from them?

The programs have had an impressively high agreement rate. Through all three programs, we are reliably assisting around 65% of cases come to a resolution. When the stakes are as high as losing your home or not getting months of rent, consistently setting parties on the path toward mutual success makes us proud.

It seems like contradiction is becoming a theme here, but challenge-wise we’ve seen both the high and low ends of caseloads depending on the county served. In Kane County, we have impressive judicial buy-in and nearly every eviction case is referred into the program. While we are happy about the enthusiasm and know we are helping many residents of Kane County, the constant high volume can be challenging for staff. Once you complete one demanding week of mediations, there is little rest as the next week’s cases are ready to be handled. To address this high volume, we have supplemented staffing to support this program and are exploring adding further personnel.

Conversely, the two other programs are less active and receive fewer referrals. This is due to a variety of issues including getting new judges up to speed, local rental assistance programs being highly effective (thus obviating some of the need for mediation), and different philosophies regarding when mediation is appropriate. We have learned that maintaining good communication with the presiding judge and court administrative staff is integral to promoting program buy-in.

As these programs have now been established for about a year, and the broader eviction landscape continues to evolve, are you anticipating any changes to the programs?

The approaching unknown in the eviction field is the end of rental assistance programs. Since the mediation programs’ inceptions, there have been federal, state and local programs that provide financial support to tenants who are behind on rent. Some of these smaller programs are wrapping up, and the large state program will end in July 2023. Once these resources are no longer available to tenants, the terms of agreements will likely change. We will most likely see less “pay and stay” agreements and more “graceful exits” with an agreed move-out date. I also anticipate providing training to our mediators on how to handle that new state of affairs.