I have received several questions about mediation referred by the Maryland Courts. Let me update an earlier column on the subject. 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 that the court system has evolved over the years and has become much more “user-friendly.” Mediation is one program that has moved Maryland Courts in that direction.
In Maryland, there are two courts for dispute resolution, the District and the Circuit Courts. Most of us experience the court system through the District Court. Cases include traffic violations, landlord-tenant disputes, and small claims. Each county, and the City of Baltimore, has at least one District Court location. There are no jury trials in District Court. Cases are argued before a judge, and the judge makes the ruling.
Circuit Courts generally handle more serious criminal and major civil cases, including divorce, custody, and child support. Each County and the City of Baltimore has a Circuit Court. Cases generally involve juries but sometimes are heard only by a judge.
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 courts were closed, adding months to get a trial date. Mediation can greatly reduce the time to get to a 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. The District Court has two Alternative Dispute Resolution (Mediation) programs. The first is a pretrial screening program. When a case is filed, you can check a box indicating whether you wish to consider mediation. This will trigger a review by the ADR Office. If determined appropriate for mediation, the parties will be contacted and offered that option. By the way, most cases are reviewed by the ADR Office to determine if mediation might be helpful. If parties agree, then mediation will be remote, using Zoom. The other program is the Day of Trial program. This allows the judge to offer mediation to cases on their docket on the day of trial. If parties agree, they immediately go into a face-to-face mediation session. The Talbot County District Court just reintroduced Day of Trial mediation. In either option, if a settlement is not reached, the parties can still appear in court, and the judge will decide the outcome. Using mediation does not remove any rights to a trial. In either District Court program, mediation is free.
Circuit Courts have a similar pre-trial 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 these cases can vary by Circuit Court, usually in the range of $200-250 per hour, split evenly between parties.
By offering mediation, the court gives the parties a powerful and flexible option. “We trust you to sort out this dispute on terms you both agree and on terms that can be much more flexible than the court can offer.” The Court gives you control over 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 https://mdcourts.gov/courts/about.
Steve Forrer, the former dean and vice-chancellor of the 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 mediation.