Have you ever watched the proceedings of either the Talbot County District or Circuit Courts in Easton? You can and should. For many of us, what we know about the court system is based on watching Perry Mason or Judge Judy. It is confusing, adversarial, and uses terms that are obtuse and dense. The good news is the court system has evolved over the years and continues to become much more “user friendly.” Mediation is one program that has moved Maryland Courts, and Talbot County, in that direction.
In Talbot County, there are two courts for dispute resolution, the District and the Circuit Courts. Both are located in Easton. Most of us experience the court system through the District Court. Cases include traffic violations, landlord-tenant disputes, and claims up to $30,000. There are no jury trials in District Court. Cases are argued before a judge and the judge makes the ruling. In 2020 the Talbot County District Court had 9,124 cases filed, of which 1,695 were civil cases.
The Talbot County Circuit Court handles more serious criminal cases, major civil cases, including divorce, custody, and child support. Cases generally involve juries, but sometimes are heard only by a judge. There were 1,231 cases filed in Talbot Circuit Court in 2020.
Going to court over a dispute is a right we all have. It is why the court system exists. However, that choice can be lengthy and expensive. During the COVID outbreak the Talbot County Courts where basically closed adding months to get a trial date. Mediation can greatly reduce the time to get to resolution, and at much less cost to the parties in the dispute.
In recent years both courts have embraced mediation for this reason. The administrative process in each court is somewhat different. Currently the Talbot District Court has one Alternative Dispute Resolution program. This is a pre-trial screening program. When a case is filed you have the option to request mediation. Cases are also reviewed by the District Court ADR Office and, if determined appropriate for mediation, the parties are contacted and offered that option. If settlement is not reached, the parties will appear in court and the judge will decide the outcome. In the District Court mediation there is no fee.
The Talbot County Circuit Court has a similar pre-trail screening program. What is different, however, is that based on the screening the Circuit Court can order parties to attend mediation with an assigned mediator. Under certain circumstances you can request not to mediate. The cost for mediation in Talbot Circuit Court is $200 per hour, split between parties.
By offering mediation the court is giving the parties a very powerful and flexible option. “We trust you to sort out this dispute on terms to which you both agree, and on terms that can be much more flexible than the court can offer.” The Court is giving you an opportunity to control the outcome, not a judge or jury. There is not much to lose in agreeing to mediation.
To learn more about the Maryland Court system go to here.
Steve Forrer, former dean and vice chancellor of University of Maryland Global Campus, is currently a mediator for the Maryland District and Circuit Courts. Questions can be submitted at www.doncastermediation.com/contact for Steve to answer in this column. He also accepts private mediations.