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Archive for the ‘Court Mediation Program’ Category

Better Forms Can Help Reduce Fear and Confusion for Self-Represented Parties

Christina Wright, February 21st, 2024

In an eviction courtroom filled mostly with self-represented defendants, the confusion and fear can be palpable: fear over what the future holds, and confusion about the process and the parties’ options.

But some of this anxiety can be mitigated. Represented or not, parties should always have access to the information they need to understand what is happening in their court case. One way to help reduce the confusion and fear is to provide easily accessible court forms with instructions in plain language.

A small group of individuals is working toward precisely this goal, and recently I began volunteering with them.

Hands hold a pen and a nondescript form.

When forms are understood and completed correctly, the court process is smoother, time is used more efficiently, and there is less risk of legal errors that might compromise a case on behalf of self-represented litigants.

In 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court created the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice (Commission) to “promote, facilitate and enhance equal access to justice with an emphasis on access to the Illinois civil courts and administrative agencies for all people, particularly the poor and vulnerable.” The same year, the court adopted an administrative order spelling out how the Commission and the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) would be tasked with developing, reviewing and approving standardized court forms for the entire state. 

The Forms Committee currently has 13 drafting subcommittees, which consist of judges, attorneys, clerks and other court stakeholders — such as RSI and me — who help create new forms when needed and update existing forms in an annual process, according to Lillie Schneyer, Forms Program Coordinator with the AOIC.

“Annual review is an important process to ensure that the forms are up to date with the latest court processes, are as user-friendly and effective as possible, and remain legally sufficient,” Schneyer explains.

Over the past few months, I have been working with the Eviction Subcommittee to revamp the forms provided to people involved in eviction cases. We are reviewing current documents, such as the Eviction Order, Appearance and Agreed Order forms, that have received comments and suggestions from members of the public or that members of the subcommittee have comments or questions about. (Draft forms are posted for public comment on this page of the Illinois courts site.)

We work together as a small group to adjust language, instructions, spacing, and any other minute detail that has been brought to our attention. Our overarching goal is to make the forms as simple and accessible as possible, with the hope that any self-represented party can maneuver them, while also ensuring that the language used is legally responsible and applicable.

We work together as a small group to adjust language, instructions, spacing, and any other minute detail that has been brought to our attention as in need of revamping. We analyze the law in reference to the language to be used on the forms and the implications of the changes we are making. Our overarching goal is to make the forms as simple and accessible as possible, with the hope that any self-represented party can maneuver them, while also ensuring that the language used is legally responsible and applicable.

The process can be tedious, but having seen eviction cases play out in my role with RSI, I recognize how important it is for all parties to fully grasp what they can expect from the court, what is expected of them, and the options in front of them so they can make informed choices. The forms guide and educate litigants in their options and legal responsibilities. When forms are understood and completed correctly, the court process is smoother, time is used more efficiently, and there is less risk of legal errors that might compromise a case on behalf of self-represented litigants. All in all, having accessible Supreme Court forms benefits both the self-represented litigants and the court itself.

When our work is complete, the revised forms will be published in the Court Forms Hub of the Illinois Courts website.

RSI Report Examines N.H. Eviction Mediation Program: Agreement Numbers Hold, but More Tenants Move Out After Rental Support Ends

Jasmine Henry, December 13th, 2023

RSI recently completed an evaluation of New Hampshire’s statewide Eviction Diversion program. Begun in 2021, this voluntary program provides landlords and residential tenants the opportunity to mediate before a landlord/tenant eviction case is filed. We were asked to evaluate program use, mediation agreement rates, and the time from initial contact to case closure. The evaluation period ran from October 1, 2022, through August 31, 2023. We found overall that the program was successful at reaching landlords and tenants around the state, as well as at helping tenants and landlords to avoid eviction. The program was efficient as well.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto via Pexels

The program process almost always begins when a tenant calls the court’s central phone line, although sometimes the landlord initiates contact and sometimes parties email the program directly. If the party calls the court’s central phone line, a staff member collects a summary of the party’s needs and emails the information, along with the person’s contact information, to the case manager/mediator. The case manager/mediator then contacts the landlords and tenants, conducts intakes, and schedules and conducts mediation. She also provides other assistance, such as a list of resources and referral to legal services.

Participation and Outcomes

During the evaluation period, 775 tenants or landlords reached out to the court about the eviction mediation program. Some reached out more than once, leading to 800 individual inquiries, 90% of which were from tenants. Of the 800 cases in which an inquiry with the Eviction Diversion Program was made, 176 (22%) were mediated.

We had final outcomes for 175 of the 176 mediations. Of these 175 mediations, 125 (71%) ended in an agreement and 50 (29%) ended without an agreement. The parties were more likely to agree to the tenant remaining in the rental than they were to agree to the tenant moving out: 63% of agreements were for the tenant to stay, while 37% were for the tenant to move out.

Results After Rental Assistance Ends

Housing agencies stopped accepting rental assistance applications at the end of October 2022 and stopped processing applications at the end of 2022. Somewhat surprisingly, this did not lead to a drop in agreements. The percentage of mediations ending in agreement rose from 68% before rental assistance ended (25 of 37 mediations) to 72% (100 of 138 mediations) afterward. However, the end of rental assistance did lead to a smaller proportion of agreements allowing tenants to stay. In October and November, 21 of 23 (91%) agreements were for the tenant to stay. This dropped to 4 of 9 (44%) in December, and 52 of 91 (57%) for the first eight months of 2023. Overall, 56% of mediation agreements after the end of rental assistance allowed the tenant to stay.

Tenants were offered the option to mediate by phone or by video. They overwhelmingly chose to mediate by phone: 157 of the 162 mediations for which we had data were conducted by phone. Only five tenants selected video mediation.

Mediations in general were conducted within a month of the tenant or landlord’s initial contact with the program. Almost two-thirds were closed within two weeks and only 11% took more than 28 days to close.

Recommendations

Based on our findings, we recommended that the program continue. It is well used and effective in helping tenants and landlords reach agreement. It has also been efficient, mediating cases quickly. We also recommended the court continue to give tenants the option to mediate by phone or video. This increases self-determination, and each method offers benefits. Phone mediation, for example, reduces the risk of a power imbalance caused by one party having a better grasp of technology or access to better technology, while video mediation offers the opportunity to exchange and view documents.

RSI Mediation Program Has Helped Over 1,500 Households Avoid Eviction

Sandy Wiegand, November 21st, 2023

More than two years ago, amid the looming threat of a rush of evictions as Illinois prepared to end its pandemic-era eviction moratorium, RSI partnered with the circuit court in Kane County to create a mediation program. It was free of cost to both tenants and landlords.

The program’s impact has been impressive. Since the eviction moratorium ended in October 2021, the Kane County Eviction Mediation Program has helped over 1,500 households avoid the traumatic effects of a sheriff’s eviction. Meanwhile, the program’s connections to rental assistance and legal and financial counseling have made it far more possible for these tenants to meet their financial obligations to landlords.

RDNE Stock Project via Pexels

Judge John Dalton, the 16th Circuit’s presiding eviction judge, also credits the program with helping the court run smoothly.

“With the help of RSI, Kane County was the first in Illinois to launch an eviction mediation program, and we have been overwhelmingly pleased with the outcomes,” Judge Dalton says. “It has been successful in assisting landlords and tenants in reaching mutually beneficial agreements. Thanks to this program, the court has been able to run efficiently during an eviction surge.”

RSI regularly surveys Kane County Eviction Mediation Program participants as one way to evaluate the program’s effectiveness. And participants have told us that mediation helps them feel heard and seen — as one tenant said, “like an actual person and not just some case number.”

As the weather turns colder and the potential consequences of eviction wax even harsher, RSI’s Kane County Eviction Mediation Program continues, with the support of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, the 16th Circuit Court, dozens of dedicated mediators, a few hard-working RSI staff members, and generous donors such as yourself. 

Thank you for your commitment to RSI’s work. If you’d like to invest in impactful endeavors such as the Kane County Eviction Mediation Program, you can do so on our website.

81% Rate Fairness of Mediator Highly in Survey of RSI’s Eviction Mediation Program

Jasmine Henry, August 21st, 2023

Participants in RSI’s Kane County, Illinois, Eviction Mediation Program continue to have an overall positive experience, recent surveys suggest, though tenants responding to the survey tended to rate the fairness of their mediator more highly than they rated the fairness of the process itself.

RSI implemented the mediation program in 2021 to mitigate the eviction surge precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to ongoing grant funding from the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, RSI continues to administer and monitor the program.

The Survey and Respondents

RSI’s most recent survey report examines responses from participants in the 264 eviction mediations held in Kane County from March 1–June 30, 2023. After every mediation, participants were invited via email or text to complete an online survey about their experience. In all, 62 participants responded to the survey — 31 tenants, four landlords and 27 attorneys. A full report on the survey findings is available here.

The survey sought participant opinions regarding fairness, trust and satisfaction. Participants were asked to respond to the questions using a seven-point scale, which we consolidated into three categories: low (1-2), medium (3-5), and high (6-7). In addition, participants were sometimes invited to add comments to their responses.

We asked participants: How fairly did the mediator treat you? Their responses were largely positive, with 81% of respondents rating the fairness of the mediator highly. To explore more of their perceptions about the mediator, we also asked: How much did you trust the mediator? Their responses to this question also were positive overall, with 79% of respondents rating their trust of the mediator highly.

Turning more broadly to participants’ experience of the mediation process as a whole, we asked: Overall, how fair was the mediation process? Most of the participants who responded felt that the mediation was fair overall, with 73% saying it was highly fair.

Tenants on Mediator, Process Fairness

Interestingly, however, tenants tended to give the mediator higher ratings for fairness than they gave the overall process. For example, only 60% of tenants found the overall process fair, while 78% of tenants felt the mediator treated their side fairly. There was a similar, albeit smaller, shift observed in attorneys’ ratings, with 85% rating the mediation process as fair, compared with 89% who felt the mediator treated them fairly. We did not observe a similar trend in landlords’ responses.

We asked tenants to explain their overall fairness ratings. Their comments may shed some light on why some tenants rated the fairness of the mediation process lower than they rated how fairly the mediator treated them. Tenants who rated overall fairness highly focused on the clarity mediators provided them, describing mediators as “helpful,” “nice,” and going “above and beyond in making sure that I understood [and] felt comfortable.” Several tenants also appreciated having a voice and feeling respected, with comments mentioning being able to “tell [their] story of how [they] got to where [they were]” and saying that mediators “made [them] feel like an actual person and not just some case number.” In contrast, tenants that gave medium and low ratings on overall fairness tended to focus their frustrated comments on landlords, rather than the mediator or the program; for example, some tenants who gave medium ratings on overall fairness still referred to the mediator as “gracious” and “fantastic” in their additional comments.

Landlord, Attorney Perspectives

All four landlords gave a high rating for process fairness. The two who explained their answers praised the rental assistance program that RSI regularly refers tenants to and acknowledged the benefit of an objective mediator’s “fresh perspective.”

Attorneys who rated the overall fairness highly described the benefits of having a facilitated dialogue so that both parties can speak their minds and consider their options. The few attorneys who rated the process as medium or low on fairness were frustrated with specific mediator actions; one comment stated that the mediator was “disrespectful to the plaintiff in many ways,” including because of their “lack of knowledge and deference to the defendant.”

Likelihood of Recommending Mediation

In order to further explore participant satisfaction, we asked participants: If a friend or colleague had a dispute like yours, how likely are you to recommend eviction mediation? Most of the participants who responded were likely to recommend mediation to a friend or colleague, with 70% saying they were highly likely to recommend it. One tenant commented that “It would be an absolute mistake no[t] going through mediation. It is the best decision when going through this type of process.” Only four tenants were unlikely to recommend mediation.

Attorneys who were highly satisfied with the mediation process commented on the benefit of, as one said, “a solution that both sides had some part in reaching.” Meanwhile, an attorney who was less satisfied with the mediation process cited “partial” mediators as a negative.

Conclusion

Overall, the survey responses indicate that the program continues to provide a positive experience to participants. Those who completed the survey generally had very positive perceptions of the mediators and the program, with most giving high ratings on fairness, trust and satisfaction. Some participants’ comments point to a possible topics for ongoing mediator education.

For more background on RSI’s 16th Judicial Circuit of Illinois Eviction Mediation Program, serving Kane County, read our evaluation of the first full year of the program, Addressing Eviction Holistically, published in late 2022, or RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack’s blog summarizing its findings.

Does ADR + Tech = Better Access to Justice? RSI Spent Much of 2022 Trying to Find Out

Sandy Wiegand, May 2nd, 2023

RSI spends a lot of time and energy studying the conditions under which court-based alternative dispute resolution (ADR) can best improve access to justice. In recent years, that has often meant using new technologies and/or assessing their impact.

As is often the case with innovations, ADR options that employ new technology are sometimes hailed as the solution to longstanding challenges. For example, online dispute resolution (ODR) is celebrated for its potential to increase access to justice by allowing parties to engage on their own schedules, in their own spaces. Unfortunately, however, technological innovations can also bring challenges and create their own barriers to justice.

RSI’s 2022 annual report asks the question: Does ADR + Tech = Better Access to Justice? Our staff spent much of last year examining that premise. We published two landmark evaluations of court programs that used ODR-specific platforms; completed an in-depth report on the potential for ODR to serve thinly resourced parents, courts and communities; and used video mediation to serve hundreds of clients in northern Illinois. We also evaluated how those programs were operating and how participants viewed them.

Our annual report outlines these efforts and summarizes some of our findings. Not surprisingly, we found both promising signs and causes for concern when it came to technology’s impact on access to justice. We also discovered a lot more questions that need to be answered and problems that need to be addressed.

We hope you will take the time to read the Resolution Systems Institute 2022 Annual Report and review what we have learned so far. The role of technology is, of course, just one of many aspects of court-based ADR that RSI is examining. Please join us as we continue exploring what technology can and can’t solve, as well as other keys to providing cost-effective, timely and fair conflict resolution.

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