In Anchorage, Alaska, an Early Resolution Program for family cases has reduced time to resolution, reduced staff time spent on cases and had no impact on the number of post-disposition motions to modify, according to a recently completed evaluation. The program includes triage, dispute resolution and attorney assistance with documents. Stacey Marz reports on her study in, “Faster and as Satisfying: An Evaluation of Alaska’s Early Resolution Triage Program” (Family Court Review, 2019).
In the Early Resolution Program (ERP), cases involving two self-represented litigants are reviewed by a staff attorney to determine if they are appropriate for the program. The staff attorney generally screens out cases involving: current or serious domestic violence incidents; issues that require evidentiary findings; a pending child abuse or neglect case; or a non-parent who is asserting a custodial claim.
If a case is appropriate, the parties are notified of the opportunity to participate. If they agree to do so, they are either provided two unbundled lawyers who work collaboratively (and only on dispute resolution), a court mediator or a settlement judge to help them resolve the case. If the parties reach agreement, they go to court to finalize their divorce approximately three weeks after entering the program. There, a staff attorney completes the final documents, including the findings of fact and conclusions of law, parenting plan, divorce decree, and child support order. The judge reviews and signs all the documents, which are then copied and distributed in the courtroom. The judge then grants the divorce and the parties leave with all the documents.
For the evaluation, Marz looked at 299 ERP cases from 2011 to 2013 that resolved through settlement and compared them to a control group of 392 cases closed before the ERP was implemented. These cases followed a traditional court track involving an initial status conference, a pre-trial conference and a trial or settlement conference. For the study, the pre-ERP cases were screened the same way as cases filed after the implementation of the ERP in order to make them comparable.
Marz found a high rate of resolution for ERP participants, with 80% reaching agreement in a three-hour dispute resolution session. In addition, ERP cases were able to close more quickly. The time from filing to closure for ERP cases was a median of 42 days as compared to a median of 104 for cases in the control group.
As a proxy for party satisfaction with the process, Marz also looked at the number of motions filed per case to modify the judgment. The assumption is that parties file motions to modify soon after the final judgment if they are unhappy with the outcome. She found no significant difference between the two groups: for the ERP group,.18 motions were filed per case within two years of disposition, compared to .22 motions per case for the control group. According to Marz, this indicates that concerns that the ERP process was too quick and parties didn’t have enough time to think about the issues were not supported.
The last item Marz examined was the number of processing steps staff undertook for each case. For cases undergoing ERP, there are 28 to 30 processing steps, taking a total of 240 minutes (4 hours). The number of steps for the average non-ERP case is 49, taking a total of 1,047 minutes (17.45 hours). Marz notes that the reason for this increased efficiency is two-fold: First, once the staff attorney screens and accepts a case into ERP, the file stays with the attorney, eliminating many case-processing steps that occur in typical cases. Second, there are great efficiencies in scheduling multiple cases during the same ERP hearing block, especially when most cases resolve in one court event.
The evaluation indicates that the Early Resolution Program in Anchorage has increased efficiency in cases involving self-represented litigants without inducing parties to enter into agreements that aren’t sustainable.