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Lessons Learned from the Implementation of a Video Eviction Mediation Program in Uncertain Times

Jennifer Shack, May 12th, 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.

I recently had the pleasure of writing a report on the development and implementation of the eviction mediation program in Kane County, Illinois. While the State of Illinois had an eviction moratorium in place, and in anticipation of a surge of cases when the moratorium was lifted, the court asked RSI to develop and administer the program. By all accounts, the program had a successful rollout. During the program’s first six months, referred parties and attorneys displayed an openness to mediation, the vast majority of parties and lawyers who took the post-mediation survey indicated they had a positive experience, and 54 of 81 mediations (67%) resulted in an agreement.

For the report, I interviewed individuals who played a large role in the development and implementation of the program, including the judge, the program partners and the program coordinator. We discussed their aspirations for the program, the steps taken to develop and implement the program, the program process, and program challenges and keys to success.

Universally, the interviewees pointed to five keys to the program’s success:

  • Strong court interest in the project
  • The support of the eviction judge
  • Good communication among the program partners
  • Good administration
  • Buy-in from landlords and their attorneys

The Program

The mediation program was conceived as a point of contact for multiple services to helptenants and landlords navigate the court process, obtain financial assistance, and address housing issues. It was designed within the following context:

  • The courthouse was closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic
  • The widely held expectation that evictions would surge when the moratorium on evictions ended, with the demand for mediation rising significantly as well
  • Significant rental relief (funds to help tenants pay their back and future rent) was available
  • Tenants and landlords needed to know whether rental relief would be provided to them in order to reach an agreement
  • The eviction process needed to keep moving forward while rental relief and mediation options were being sought
  • Almost all tenants in eviction cases are self-represented, as are some landlords
  • There was the potential for external funding for mediation

This context meant that the program needed to be a remote process, with cases triaged quickly and referred for other services prior to mediation. Anticipating a large number of cases, the program required a large number of mediators. RSI and the court therefore designed the program as a free, multi-step process with a full-time coordinator, legal aid and financial counseling partners, and paid mediators, all of which was possible due to the availability of multiple sources of external funding.

Lessons Learned

The individuals I interviewed outlined the multiple challenges they confronted in developing and implementing the program. The lessons they learned from working through those challenges are outlined below.

Flexibility is required, particularly when confronting uncertainty.

The program was planned while three main factors affecting that planning were very uncertain: the number of cases that would be filed, what level of funding would be available and when the predicted surge in cases would begin. These circumstances required the program partners to remain flexible during the planning phase in terms of when to ramp up their services, and it required RSI to react to the changing landscape of cases after the program launched. The ability to change procedures and to increase capacity have been essential to the continued provision of mediation to all parties interested in participating.

Communication among the stakeholders is essential.

During both the planning phase and after program launch, continued communication allowed program partners to plan and to set up efficient mechanisms for referrals. It essentially helped them to be flexible. It also served as a point of exchange of information regarding other types of services available to tenants and landlords, which helped program partners open more doors for their clients.

Judicial support is key.

The program can only function if the judges support it both by educating the parties about the resources available to them and by either strongly encouraging or requiring the parties to attend mediation. When tenants are educated about the benefits of mediation, they are more likely to want to participate.

Landlord and/or landlord attorney buy-in is required.

It is important to get the perspective of the landlords during the planning phase and to address their concerns. If the landlords and/or their attorneys do not see the value of mediation to them, they will not participate or, if ordered to, will not participate fully. Note that it is also essential to obtain the perspective of the tenants; their concerns and interests were presented by Prairie State Legal Services.

Provision of services is time-intensive.

The program was originally designed with the program coordinator (PC) conducting an intake with each party who came to her during the court hearings, letting them know about the services available and making referrals on the spot. This became untenable when the number of cases per hearing date rose to 40 or 50 and RSI found that information exchange with parties took longer than expected. To provide this kind of service would require more than one or two people. The PC, therefore, shifted to obtaining contact information from each interested party and then following up after court.

RSI’s program partners had similar challenges keeping up with demand. According to the director of program partner the Aurora Financial Empower Center (FEC), the FEC’s three counselors would not be able to assist all tenants who required help if the number of cases surged too high. Legal aid program partner Prairie State Legal Services similarly did not have the staff required to help all eligible tenants seeking their services. All of this suggests that further resources are required to provide the optimal level of service for all those who need it.

Good program administration is important.

The program coordinator’s skillful management of the program has been a key to the program’s success. Her organizational skills and development of efficient processes have made the program run smoothly.


Many thanks to the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation for its support of the evaluation of the eviction mediation program, of which the implementation report is a part. Many thanks as well, to the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation for its support of the eviction mediation program.

Go to RSI’s website to read the full report.

Survey Data Indicates Eviction Mediation Program Offers Procedural Justice

Jennifer Shack, March 9th, 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.

Last year, RSI and the 16th Judicial Circuit Court in Kane County, Illinois, launched a new mediation program to address eviction cases. In this program, parties are informed of the program when they receive their summons and are invited to participate when they arrive for their initial hearing. If they decide to participate, they meet with the program coordinator, who informs them of their options, including meeting with a financial counselor and/or a legal services representative. The coordinator then schedules the mediation on a date prior to the next hearing. Mediation takes place via Zoom. Between June 2021 and early January 2022, the program mediated 81 disputes.

After each mediation, parties and attorneys are invited by email to complete a survey online about their experience. From the first 81 cases, 28 participants responded, including 6 tenants, 2 landlords and 20 attorneys. While this is a small sample size from which to draw definitive conclusions, their responses indicate the program is offering participants a positive experience in mediation.

The tenants, landlords and attorneys all gave favorable ratings to their experience in mediation. 89% indicated they would recommend mediation to a friend or colleague. 93% rated fairness of the process highly. All but one said they could express what was important to them during the mediation. When commenting about what they liked about the mediation, they most often said something positive about the mediator. A few also commented on the convenience of the process.

RSI has published these findings in a brief report available on our website. We are grateful to the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation’s support for our ongoing evaluation of the program and the dissemination of the findings, and to the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, whose support has enabled us to operate this mediation program. We look forward to sharing more information with you as the program evolves.

What You Need to Know in Order to Know More About Your Program

Jennifer Shack, June 1st, 2021

I thought I’d do something a little different this month and point out a few resources to those of you who are interested in either starting to examine your ADR programs or are thinking about how to expand or improve current efforts to evaluate program effectiveness. 

Demographics

There has been a push lately to have courts collect demographic information from parties, particularly race and ethnicity, so that courts can better understand and address inequities in service provision. In that vein, the National Center for State Courts has published “Collecting Race and Ethnicity Data.” This is a short report that provides helpful information on the standards for collecting such information, things to think about when planning to collect it and how you may want to customize race and ethnicity categories to best fit the community you serve. 

Model Surveys

Demographics are also included in the Model Surveys created by RSI and the American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution. But that’s only one part of what you’ll find in our packet. The Model Surveys include questions you should ask on any mediation program survey, as well as instructions about how to customize the surveys for your particular program.

Guide to Program Success

If you’re looking for more extensive information on how to monitor and evaluate your program, RSI has included two chapters in our Guide to Program Success that step you through tracking your program and conducting evaluations. In Chapter 11, “Design a System to Track Your Program,” you’ll learn how to decide what to track, what data will be needed from what sources in order to do so, and more.  Chapter 15, “Evaluate Your Program,” dives into everything you need to know about how to do a full program evaluation.

Research Year in Review

Jennifer Shack, December 18th, 2020

The past year we focused on research that related to the times we’ve been experiencing. With courts going online and an expected surge in evictions on the horizon, I turned my attention to those topics, summarizing research on online dispute resolution (ODR) and presenting outcomes from housing mediation programs. 

Online Dispute Resolution

In March, I rounded up the research to date on ODR. A study in the Netherlands found that participants in ODR for divorcing couples perceived the process to be fair, with procedural fairness, interpersonal justice and informational justice all given high marks. On a scale of 1 to 5, they had averages of 4.27, 4.5 and 4.19, respectively. The participants’ perception of the outcome was also positive, though to a lesser extent than for the procedure. They gave an average of 3.91 for distributive justice, 3.37 for restorative justice, 3.18 for functionality and 3.0 for transparency.

A small study of a pilot small claims ODR program had less positive results. It found that 47% of cases reached agreement. The 18 parties who responded to a survey had some issues with the technology, with only 47% saying the technology was easy to use. In addition, only 53% were satisfied with their experience and only 23% felt the outcome was fair.

In the round up, I also summarized research about the potential advantages and disadvantages of using video-based and text-based ODR in cases with a history of intimate partner violence or abuse (IPV/A). The researchers suggest that mediators on IPV/A cases must carefully consider a variety of potential issues including the parties’ suspicion of mediator bias, confidentiality concerns, and victim-perpetrator power dynamics. 

While others in 2020 wrote about the possibilities for ODR, Jean Sternlight examined some of its weaknesses. Her article explored online dispute resolution (ODR) through the lens of the psychology of dispute resolution, focusing on four different areas: the psychology of perception and memory, the psychology of human wants, the psychology of communication, and judgment and decision making. She concluded that ODR may not be the best tool to assist individuals in creatively working things out with a fellow disputant and may be better employed for small and predictable disputes, like small online purchases.

An RSI survey found that the COVID pandemic has led most states to adopt video mediation for family cases. Others are moving forward with formal ODR platforms. Despite the increased availability of online services, almost half of the states that responded to the survey said there was an unmet need for family ODR and that funding was the main requirement for meeting that need. 

During the past year, we also learned about how to design ODR platforms from a study of Utah’s small claims platform, and were given tips on researching the impact of ODR on access to justice. 

Eviction Mediation

Two articles published in this year discussed programs in Minnesota and Missouri to help landlords and tenants avoid eviction. The results of these programs indicate that they help keep evictions off tenant credit histories and reduce forcible evictions. 

In St. Paul, Minnesota, the court instituted multiple changes to its housing court, including expanding access to mediation and making it, along with financial and legal resources, available at the court during eviction hearings. After a year and a half, the court’s numbers appear to show an improvement in outcomes. The court has a goal of reducing evictions by 50% in five years. In the first 18 months, evictions declined by 8%, to the lowest eviction rate in 10 years. Settlements increased by 5%, to the highest rate in five years. The impact was highest on expungements, which doubled. On the other end, fears of increased trial numbers and longer court calls didn’t come true. The number of trials as a proportion of cases declined and court call length increased by 10 minutes on average.

In St. Louis, in a voluntary program for cases in which neither landlord nor tenant is represented, 71% of mediated cases resulted in a settlement in 2018. The terms of more than half of these agreements were completed, resulting in a dismissal. One-third of agreements resulted in a consent judgment for eviction against the tenant and 25% resulted in the sheriff executing the judgment through forcible removal of the tenant. Cases that went to trial, on the other hand, were significantly more likely to end in eviction. Consent judgments were entered against tenants in 92% of these cases and resulted in forcible removal in 40%. The authors extrapolate from that data that 279 families avoided eviction in 2018 by settling in mediation and completing the terms of their agreement rather than going to trial.

Family ADR

Studies of family ADR programs continue to demonstrate the benefits of helping parents to resolve their issues outside of court. 

In Anchorage, Alaska, an Early Resolution Program (ERP) for family cases 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 study found that 80% of the parties who participated in ERP reached agreement in a three-hour hearing. Unsurprisingly, ERP cases reached disposition more quickly, with a median of 42 days as compared to a median of 104 for cases in the control group. The program also led to significant time savings for staff. For cases undergoing ERP, there were 28 to 30 processing steps, taking a total of 240 minutes (4 hours). The number of steps for the average non-ERP case was 49, taking a total of 1,047 minutes (17.45 hours).

study of parenting time mediation in Massachusetts found multiple benefits for parents and families. In surveys, parents said that conflict between them and the other parent was diminished in about 2/3 of the mediations. This benefit appeared to last for weeks after mediation for many parents, as 53% of those who were interviewed said that conflict continued to be reduced. Similarly, more than 2/3 of surveyed parents reported greater civility between them and the other parent. Again, this benefit remained over time, with 50% saying that they and the other parent treated each other with greater civility. Most parents also said that their communication had improved, with 72% of those surveyed saying so and 54% of those interviewed weeks later agreeing.  

Litigant Perception Research

Litigant attendance at a dispute resolution process impacts their assessment of the fairness of that process, according to research conducted by Donna Shestowsky. Shestowsky found that when litigants attended a settlement procedure used to resolve their case, they rated that procedure as fairer than those litigants who attended an adjudicative procedure. However, when litigants did not attend the procedure used to resolve their case, they saw settlement and adjudicative procedures as similarly fair. When comparing attendance within procedures, she found that attendance did not affect fairness ratings for settlement procedures, but that those who attended an adjudicative procedure rated the procedure as less fair than those who did not attend the procedure.

I wish you all a happy, safe and healthy holiday season!

Eviction Mediation in St. Louis Significantly Reduces Evictions

Jennifer Shack, November 23rd, 2020

As the eviction crisis looms, a number of courts around the country are implementing mediation programs. Data collected from a decade-old program in St. Louis County provide more evidence that these new programs are likely going to be effective. Mediation there was found to have a positive effect on outcomes and compliance, helping both landlords and tenants to maintain stability in income and housing. 

In a recent article, “Addressing the Housing Crisis Through Mediation” (Washington University Journal of Law and Policy, 2020), Karen Tokarz, et al, discuss how the program works and the benefits that have accrued to participants. The Washington University School of Law Civil Rights & Mediation Clinic developed the program in partnership with Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council more than a decade ago. In 2012, mediators affiliated with United States Arbitration & Mediation joined clinic students in providing free mediation services for landlord-tenant cases in which neither side has a lawyer. Originally opt-in, the program was made opt-out in 2018. 

The mediators for the program – lawyers and students alike – attend a training that includes an overview of housing law in St. Louis County, mediator ethics, mediation strategies and agreement drafting. The mediators must observe at least two mediations, co-mediate at least two mediations, and be shadowed for at least two mediations before they begin mediating independently. Mediations are conducted on the first court date for the case, which is generally the trial date.

The program uses two agreement forms that are completed as a part of each mediation agreement. The first, the conditional continuance, lays out the settlement terms. This document continues the case while the parties comply with the terms and notes that if the terms are satisfied, the case will be dismissed. It also notes that if a party breaches the terms of the agreement, the other party may file a consent judgment. The consent judgment is the second form that is completed during the mediation.  It typically grants possession and the full rent owed to the landlord. Should the case come back before the judge to sign the consent judgment, the judge uses both documents to determine whether to do so. The judge may decline to sign if, for example, the landlord has not made repairs agreed to in the conditional continuance. 

The program has been successful. In 2018, 71% of mediated cases resulted in a settlement. The terms of more than half of these agreements were completed, resulting in a dismissal. One-third of agreements resulted in a consent judgment for eviction against the tenant and 25% resulted in the sheriff executing the judgment through forcible removal of the tenant. Cases that went to trial, on the other hand, were significantly more likely to end in eviction. Consent judgments were entered against tenants in 92% of these cases and resulted in forcible removal in 40%. The authors extrapolate from that data that 279 families avoided eviction in 2018 by settling in mediation and completing the terms of their agreement rather than going to trial. It must be noted, however, that the two groups of cases – those that mediated and those that did not – are not similar. Mediated cases, as mentioned above, were limited to those in which neither side had an attorney. Those cases that went to trial included those in which at least one party (generally the landlord) had an attorney. 

The authors note that the impact of the eviction mediation program is limited due to its focus on cases in which neither party is represented and the day-of-trial mediation format. Further, growth is difficult due to the limited number of mediators available. They point to four directions the program can take to widen its impact. The first direction is to offer mediation prior to the first court date, or even before the eviction is filed. This would require greater outreach to landlords, tenants and government agencies to ensure that landlords are on board, tenants know about the program and agencies can urge its use. The second direction is to fund the program so that it can be sustained at a broader scale. Third, the program could be expanded to Municipal Court, where housing and building code enforcements are handled. Landlords and tenants are often unrepresented in this court and mediation in this context could lead to housing improvements and stability. The fourth direction would be to adopt online dispute resolution, allowing mediations to occur during the pandemic.  

The St. Louis County eviction mediation program is one of many recent programs that have been implemented around the country. The data indicating its effectiveness adds to the increasing evidence that such programs are successful at reducing evictions, thus providing stability to landlords, tenants and communities.