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Archive for the ‘Eviction Mediation’ Category

After Successful Pilot, RSI Seeks Mediator Partners for Next Phase of Trust Project

Jennifer Shack, July 17th, 2024

Last year, RSI began the pilot phase of a research project to examine how mediator behaviors might affect parties’ trust during mediation. During this exploration phase, our research team has been observing small claims and eviction mediations and marking down mediators’ communication behaviors, in a process referred to as coding, for the Trust Project. We gathered pre- and post-mediation surveys from the parties, and we interviewed the mediators involved.

From left, Rackham Foundation’s Ava Abramowitz, RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack and Behavior Analysis Trainer Kenneth Webb gave a presentation on the early findings of RSI’s Trust Project at the American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution 2024 Spring Conference in April 2024.

After coding 22 mediations and completing a thorough review of our piloted data collection instruments, RSI has successfully completed our pilot phase. We are excited to share that we will soon be expanding the project and are looking for mediation organizations and/or individual mediators who would like to partner with us.

Method Adapted for Mediation

The Trust Project is based on behavior analysis (BA), a research method that codes for particular communication behaviors and connects them to desired outcomes. This method has been used successfully in negotiations and sales. BA examines the particular behaviors used as well as the sequences of behaviors that occur, to determine their effects on specific desired outcomes. In this instance, RSI is interested in changes in trust between the parties and changes in trust in the mediator. We are also interested in mediation results and participant perceptions of the mediation and the other party.

Over the course of five years, Ava Abramowitz and Ken Webb worked to modify communication behaviors used in the contexts of negotiations and sales for use in mediation — with a lot of input from mediators and researchers. Ava is a former assistant U.S. attorney, longtime mediator and secretary of the Rackham Foundation. Ken is an expert in behavior analysis, coding and training negotiators to improve their practice. He trained RSI’s researchers in behavior analysis. Thanks to generous support from the Rackham Foundation, RSI has the opportunity to conduct this innovative research into the effects of mediator behaviors on party trust.

Watch Michael Lang’s 2021
In Their Voices interview with Ava Abramowitz and Ken Webb for more insight into the idea of applying behavioral analysis to mediation — the concept behind the Trust Project!

Mediator Partners Sought

For the next phase of the Trust Project, RSI will observe mediations of small claims, family and larger civil cases, both in person and online. We are looking for partners in this endeavor. Interested organizations and mediators would work with RSI to determine how to effectively recruit parties. Mediators will be asked to complete an initial survey about their background and approach to mediation, to facilitate observations of their mediations, and to complete a survey after each observed mediation. We will preserve confidentiality of the mediations, the mediators and the parties by removing any identifying information from the data.

If you are interested in participating in this impactful research, please contact RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack at jshack@aboutrsi.org.

8 Tips for Assisting Self-Represented Litigants

Christina Wright, June 24th, 2024

Working in the Kane County Eviction Mediation Program for the past three years, I have seen firsthand the challenges self-represented litigants may face. I have also learned a lot by reading RSI’s research on related topics, such as the ODR Party Engagement (OPEN) Project. Recently, I had a chance to speak to members of the Illinois Supreme Court Access to Justice Court Navigator Network at the Kane County Law Library in Geneva, Illinois, about tips I’ve found useful in supporting these litigants. I am sharing them below with the hope that they will be useful to others.

Photo by Edmond Dantes via Pexels

1. Speak and write in plain English.

For native speakers as well as those for whom it is a second language, English can be a difficult language to master. Many self-represented litigants don’t have the language skills to understand the legalese that is often used in the courtroom. Thus, it is important that all court-related communications be written in plain English. Additionally, court-connected mediation programs and other settings involving self-represented litigants should have a staff member accessible to answer questions regarding court/program handouts and policies.

2. Provide translation.

Any paperwork should be readily available in commonly used languages other than English. In Kane County, our primary need is Spanish, but that will vary by jurisdiction. Translation services should also be provided as needed.

3. Be clear that outcomes are not predictable.

To avoid making promises you can’t keep, be sure to use language that does not promise a particular outcome. For instance, one could say “You may apply for a court fee waiver,” rather than “You can get your court fees waived.” This important distinction can prevent confusion down the line as the individual continues to navigate the court/program.

4. Be flexible with scheduling.

Courts/programs can be difficult to access for those who live near or below the poverty line and/or who have inflexible work schedules. For self-represented litigants with little or no income, it may be impossible to physically attend court or afford the devices necessary to attend court virtually. Buses, ride-hailing services and even bicycles cost money and can be time-consuming to use. Being flexible with scheduling allows participants a greater chance of attending, and without the extra burden of costs associated with travel, childcare, calling off work, etc.

5. Be knowledgeable about available resources.

Inability to use technology is another hurdle. Whether it be because the individual lacks the skills or the finances to utilize technology, online dispute resolution (ODR) programs and virtual court may only be an option with extra assistance from the court/program. Extra assistance may come in the form of lending a device, walking the self-represented litigant through connection issues, or referring them to another agency that can help get them connected. Libraries are a great resource for technology assistance and connection.

6. Keep an open mind.

Don’t assume you know anything about any particular self-represented litigant’s life, capabilities, technology access, education, finances, etc. What may seem simple or common to you may not even be an option for them. With that said, self-represented litigants come from all different walks of life, so it is even more important not to assume they are all alike and thus all have the same needs.

7. Be persistent when reaching out to parties.

How do you reach a self-represented litigant? Keep trying! The Kane County Eviction Mediation Program uses phone, text, email and in-person conversations to gather information and assist self-represented litigants face their legal challenges. Everyone has their own preferred communication method, so it takes different forms of communication to reach different people. Attempt contact frequently and through a variety of methods if you really want to reach the individual.

8. Be trustworthy.

Finally, the OPEN Project found that trust can be a big obstacle for courts. OPEN focus group participants were wary of the communications they reviewed. Thus, it is important that all court communications look official and provide solid contact information in case the self-represented litigant needs to ask questions or contact the court/program for other reasons.

Although there can be challenges when working with self-represented litigants, the individual parties can benefit greatly from the support. Mediation and similar programs can provide clarity, control, support, legal assistance, financial resources, housing counseling and other resources to self-represented litigants. They can decrease the amount of time a case remains in court (a benefit to everyone involved) and prevent unnecessary wage losses. Self-represented litigants may need regular reinforcement and assurance, but by providing this service we increase their access to justice.

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.

Most Give High Ratings for Mediator Fairness, Trust in Mediator in Recent Surveys of RSI’s Kane County Eviction Mediation Program

Jasmine Henry, January 10th, 2024

RSI administers an eviction mediation program in Kane County, Illinois. Every quarter, we provide a report to the court on the participants’ experience in mediation based on their responses to a post-mediation survey.

Between July 1, 2023, and September 30, 2023, 174 eviction mediations were held in the 16th Judicial Circuit of Illinois (Kane County). After every mediation, participants were invited via email or text to complete an online survey about their experience; not all of the participants completed surveys. In our latest survey report, we examined participant responses from those three months. Specifically, we focused on participant opinions regarding fairness, trust and satisfaction. In all, 21 tenants, one landlord and 11 attorneys responded. The participants responded to the questions according to a seven-point scale, which we consolidated into three categories: low (1–2), medium (3–5), and high (6–7). Participants were invited to add comments to some of their responses. Their responses are summarized below.

Trust in Mediator, Perceived Fairness

We asked respondents about their perception of the mediator. Specifically, we asked: “How fairly did the mediator treat you?” And, “How much did you trust the mediator?” Almost two-thirds of participants gave high ratings for mediator fairness and trust. However, respondents tended to rate mediator fairness higher than mediator trust. For example, fewer than 3% of respondents thought the mediator did not treat them fairly, while 15% of respondents had low trust in the mediator. There was a parallel, albeit smaller, difference observed in the positive ratings, with 63% of respondents rating the mediator as very fair, compared with 58% who had high trust in the mediator.

Turning more broadly to respondents’ perception 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 62% saying it was highly fair. Notably, this is very similar to the percentage of respondents who said the mediator was highly fair. Not all of the respondents were impressed with the process, and 10% of respondents rated the mediation a little fair or not at all fair.

Tenants who rated overall fairness as high focused on the clarity mediators provided them, describing mediators as “helping” and “kind.” An attorney who rated overall fairness high also emphasized the mediator’s “sympathetic demeanor.”

Comments of Tenants, Attorneys

We asked respondents to explain their overall fairness ratings. The landlord did not comment, but many tenants and some attorneys did. Tenants who rated overall fairness as high focused on the clarity mediators provided them, describing mediators as “helping” and “kind.” An attorney who rated overall fairness high also emphasized the mediator’s “sympathetic demeanor.” A quarter of the tenant comments mentioned court-based rental assistance, which tenants were often referred to by the program. Several tenants also saw the mediators as helping, saying, “They stood up for me … They didn’t let [the landlord] push me,” and “[We asked] for what we wanted and [the mediator] basically fought for us to get it.”

In contrast, tenants who gave medium and low ratings on overall fairness tended to focus their frustrated comments on the mediator’s relationship with the landlord. One tenant said the mediator “may have been more partial to the landlord” because they “were familiar with one another”; another tenant said plainly that “they are there to mostly help the landlord.” One tenant felt frustrated that the mediator did not seem to believe what the tenant said at mediation, saying, “The mediator seemed to take what I had to say about the situation with a grain of salt.” Attorneys who rated the overall fairness at a medium or low level focused on efficiency, with one saying, “I was disappointed that the mediator allowed the opposing side to spend valuable time on issues irrelevant to the case.”

Likelihood to Recommend Eviction Mediation

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 67% saying they were highly likely to recommend it. One tenant commented, “I would recommend all mediation options; sometimes tenants are unaware of the resources available due to lack of communication or shame.” However, another tenant who was less satisfied with the process commented, “It doesn’t help the tenant. At all. It helps landlords.”

As was the case with the first question on participant satisfaction, the landlord did not comment on their responses to this question, but we did receive two attorney comments. One attorney who was highly satisfied with the mediation process commented, “We made the exact same settlement offer that was accepted at mediation to the landlord’s attorney months ago, and they never responded in any way despite multiple phone calls. I assume this was on their client’s instructions. Because of the mediation process, I believe they would have continued stonewalling us.” The attorney who was unlikely to recommend mediation to a colleague said: “The lengthy mediation process is not helpful in my view. Before this system was implemented, and still now (in other counties), I am often able to reach agreements with the tenants within 5–10 minutes in the hallway outside the Courtroom. There is no need for the mediator, in my opinion.”

Conclusion

In conclusion, the survey responses indicate that the program continues to provide a positive experience to most participants. Those who completed the survey generally had positive perceptions of the mediators and the program, with the majority giving high ratings on fairness, trust and satisfaction. However, some participants’ comments point to a perception among tenants that mediators are biased toward the other side and a perception among attorneys that the mediation process is not efficient.

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