In recent years, the Courts of Common Pleas around Ohio have been experiencing a sharp increase in civil stalking petition filings. In response, the Supreme Court Commission on Dispute Resolution decided to start a pilot mediation program for ten jurisdictions. The 18-month pilot ended in December. I was privileged to be asked to assess the pilot program so that the Commission on Dispute Resolution could make an informed decision about whether to continue the program and expand it statewide. Though data collection proved problematic, there was enough information to determine that mediation could be useful and safe for these cases, and that referral to mediation can significantly increase the number of settlements and decrease the number of full hearings held.
Civil stalking cases generally involve a pattern of behavior that isn’t serious enough to be criminal. The vast majority of cases involve people with a current or past relationship of some sort. In the Ohio pilot, almost half of the cases in which the relationship between the parties was reported, involved neighbors. Others were co-workers, former in-laws and ex-romantic partners.
Mediation in the Ohio pilot was voluntary, with referral generally occurring when the parties arrived for the full hearing. The counties differ as to who conducts the mediations, with some referring cases to independent mediators and some being mediated by a judge not associated with the case. For all cases, mediation is conducted in a shuttle format, with the petitioner and respondent in different rooms.
The reported number of mediations for the ten pilot programs ranged from 0 to 14, for a total of 52 mediations combined. The agreement rate for the 52 cases was 71%. Agreements tended to call for there to be no contact between the parties, with 12 of 15 containing only terms that were meant to keep the parties apart. Three, which involved neighbors, attempted to address the underlying causes of the conflict between the parties. They included terms such as keeping pets from the other party’s property, keeping common areas clean and removing lighting that encroached on the other party’s property.
While no contact agreements may be sufficient for cases involving ex-romantic partners or former in-laws, for those parties who are neighbors, it can be more challenging. For them, creative terms that address the underlying causes of conflict may be more effective in keeping those parties from later returning to court. I therefore recommended that future mediator training include methods for identifying underlying causes of conflict and helping parties to devise creative agreement terms that can address those causes.
Few parties completed surveys. Of the 10 parties who did, most were pleased with their experience and would recommend it to others. Most felt they had input into the outcome and all felt they had the opportunity to talk about most or all of their issues and concerns. In comments, the parties said mediation helped them by giving them voice and by allowing them to resolve their conflict without going to court. One surveyed party, who wanted a protection order, thought the mediation was a waste of time.
Three limited issues were also identified. A few ineligible cases were referred to mediation in one county. Of the ten parties surveyed in other counties, three believed that their mediation agreement was enforceable in court when it was not. Further, two of five parties who were asked whether they felt they could choose whether or not to mediate responded only “somewhat,” indicating that they didn’t have complete self-determination. These parties had been told of the opportunity to mediate by the judge hearing their case, and one indicated it was for this reason that she felt a little pressured to mediate.
In one county, enough information was provided to determine what effect mediation had overall. As cases were referred to mediation when they arrive for the full hearing, we can assume that without referral to mediation, those 44 cases in which the parties arrived at the full hearing would not have settled and would have proceeded to a full hearing. As 19 of the 44 cases were referred to mediation, and only two of those continued to a full hearing, mediation referral had the effect of reducing the number of full hearings from 44 to 27, or by 38%. Further, 11 of the cases referred to mediation resulted in an agreement. With 12 cases settling prior to the full hearing, this means that referral to mediation almost doubled the number of settlements to 23.
The data from the above county indicates that mediation of civil stalking cases can have an impact similar to that of mediation for other types of cases, with about 20% of cases filed being referred to mediation and 11% being settled through the process. It can also safely address the needs of the parties – to have voice and to avoid court. When implementing this type of program, courts should be aware of possible pitfalls, including party misunderstanding of agreement enforceability and the impact of judge referral on parties’ belief that they can choose to mediate.