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Bringing Court ADR Programs into the Courtroom

Kimberly Ackmann, May 8th, 2015

As the RSI foreclosure mediation team continues to incubate foreclosure mediation in Illinois, we have explored a variety of ways to reach out and connect with homeowners who could benefit from our programs’ services. One approach has been to establish our programs’ presence at the courthouses where homeowners are attempting to navigate the foreclosure process. Going to court can be an overwhelming or intimidating prospect for homeowners facing foreclosure. Providing information about available resources like the foreclosure mediation programs can be a great opportunity to connect with homeowners.

As the program coordinator for Illinois’ 17th Circuit’s Foreclosure Mediation Program, I began to explore whether increasing the program’s presence in the courtroom could increase our impact on the community. With this goal in mind, I recently started meeting potential parties at the Winnebago County Courthouse in Rockford. I go over to the courthouse during the foreclosure court call so that I can work directly with homeowners interested in participating in foreclosure mediation. Because I am waiting right outside the courtroom, the presiding judge can refer homeowners into the mediation program and send them directly to me for more information. I am also available to answer more general questions that homeowners or attorneys may have about the program and other area resources. In deciding to increase the presence of the foreclosure mediation program at the courthouse, I looked to other models around the state for ideas about how to proceed. Since instituting my own procedure, I’ve learned more about what can make these efforts most effective. For other programs looking to expand their court presence, here’s what I’ve learned.

In what ways might court ADR programs be present in the courtroom?

  • Attend court calls
  • Act as a court-program liaison
  • Establish a help desk to provide information
  • A hybrid of any of the above

Kane County’s foreclosure mediation program does not attend court calls, but does keep the court apprised of the status of pending cases weekly. Kane’s foreclosure mediation program is also housed in the courthouse, so judges can easily send homeowners up to the program’s office on the 4th floor. Kane’s program also holds monthly homeowner workshops, where homeowners can come complete their initial intake with the program and then receive legal aid and housing counseling all in the same space. The program schedules homeowners ahead of time for these workshops, but also makes sure that the judges are aware of the schedule, so that homeowners at the foreclosure court call on workshop day can be referred by the judge to stop in. The Kane County courthouse also has a foreclosure help desk, where homeowners receive information about resources, including the foreclosure mediation program, and how to navigate the court.

What should you consider when analyzing your program’s presence in the courtroom?

  • What are your goals as program staff? What are the court’s goals?
  • Is there time available for a program representative to be present? If so, how much?
  • Is there a time that would work best to meet the program’s goals? For example, a dedicated day/time for court calls? Will these times work with the other goals and activities of judges and court staff?
  • Is there any behind-the-scenes work that can be done to establish your presence?

How a program structures its court presence will depend on the amount of time and resources that program staff have, as well as what works with the court’s processes. If there is not a dedicated time or date that the court schedules certain cases, it could be a difficult task to be physically present during a call.

Goals that the program might have in establishing a court presence might include gaining information to help administer the files, providing information to parties and conducting outreach, providing information to the court, strengthening relationships, or strengthening rapport and lines of communication with program stakeholders. Perhaps, more broadly, a court presence may provide more efficiency in administering the program. Sometimes you may not know or understand what value having a presence in the courtroom can have until you try it.

Why should a court ADR program increase its presence in the courtroom?

Your program may benefit in many ways from an increased presence in the courtroom. Christine Hawley, Arbitration Administrator for the 17th Judicial Circuit, attends court calls one designated morning each week. She states that not all arbitration administrators attend court because most circuits do not have a specific arbitration motion call. Hawley feels fortunate to attend these calls, as she believes it positively affects how she administers her program. While her actual participation in the court call is low, primarily assigning the hearing dates, she is better able to track the case flow and status of the arbitration files by being present in the courtroom. She is also able to provide on-the-spot answers to her supervising judge’s questions and can guide substitute judges on the special rules governing her program. Hawley stated she can do simple things like confirm contact information with pro se parties or monitor the age of problem files, all contributing to her program’s efficiency. She can also be better prepared for potentially difficult parties and arrange for extra security when she has observed extreme adversarial behavior in the courtroom. And on a lighter note, Hawley feels that she has the unique opportunity to interact with court staff and educate them about the special rules pertaining to the arbitration program, all while making new friends. But the greatest benefit to attending the weekly motion call is that the steady interaction with her supervising judge has enabled her to build a comfortable “rapport with the Judge so you can comfortably raise problem issues so that they can be resolved” prior to the case reaching the actual arbitration hearing, thus enabling the files to move along smoothly and as scheduled. Court ADR programs usually strive for efficiency and a court presence can promote that.

My experience

This semester our foreclosure mediation program in the 17th Judicial Circuit was able to work with a John Marshall Law School student participating in the school’s Foreclosure Mediation Clinic. One goal of the clinic is for students to understand how a local foreclosure mediation program operates. Most of the students work with Cook County’s foreclosure mediation program, working under a licensed supervising attorney to provide limited-scope representation to homeowners throughout the foreclosure mediation process. The 17th Circuit’s program got the opportunity to work with a student, Lacoya Bates, because of her interest in serving the Rockford community. We decided to try having Lacoya and me attend court calls to be more available to answer questions about the program.

Because I consider our project of incubating a court mediation program a “grand experiment,” I thought “let’s give this a try.” So far, I have attended a handful of court calls in Winnebago County and one in Boone County. In Winnebago, it has worked best to utilize a small conference room located just outside of the two courtrooms conducting foreclosure court calls; both courtrooms schedule their foreclosure calls at the same time each week. I place a sign on the door, “Foreclosure Mediation Program Information,” and wait for folks to approach with questions. Each courtroom utilizes my presence differently. One judge refers homeowners into the mediation program during the foreclosure call and will then tell them to step outside the courtroom to meet with me, so I can clearly describe the next steps. One courtroom mentions to folks that I am available, and many parties will step out and chat with me to learn more about the program and resources available in the area. I have found that my presence makes me available not only to homeowners, but to attorneys who may have questions as well.

In Boone County I observe the court proceedings, as there is just one court call. So far I have attended one call, with the judge announcing my presence. Boone is a small, rural county and is located farther away from mediation services in Winnebago County. Therefore, increasing our presence in the Boone courthouse has a positive effect in terms of relationship building and ensuring that this community also benefits from the program’s services. By being present and interacting with judges, attorneys and court staff, I have been able to better learn who the key players are in the foreclosure legal community and have been available to answer any questions parties may have.

I cannot yet tell you any definite effects this new presence has on the program. However, in RSI’s experience incubating foreclosure mediation, we’ve found that the more we can conduct outreach and make it easier for homeowners to get information and gain access to program services, the better the chances that homeowners will enter and participate in mediation programs. Having more of a court presence seems to be an added opportunity to meet these goals and I can tell you that I feel that I am building better rapport with each court. Our court presence has added an extra outreach component to the program, and I am able to provide homeowners with information early in hopes that they can move through the program more efficiently.

 

 

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