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Court of Appeals Family Law Mediation Program Aims to Decrease Conflict, Reduce Costs

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2008

Now in its third month, the Minnesota Court of Appeals pilot program for appellate mediation has forty active appeals in the mediation process.  This promising program is designed to decrease conflict levels for families involved in appellate litigation, decrease the time on appeal, and achieve more satisfying outcomes for the litigants. The Family Law Appellate Mediation pilot program officially started on September, 2, 2008.  "We have launched this mediation program with a strong belief, based on our research and the experience of other pioneering states, that this process will improve outcomes for families by reducing the costs of litigation, resolving cases more quickly, diminishing the level of painful conflict, improving judicial efficiency, and focusing on healing rather than further damaging fundamental family relationships," said Court of Appeals Judge Harriet Lansing.

Judge Lansing chairs the workgroup consisting of Court of Appeals judges, court staff, and law school professors who have been meeting regularly since March 2007 to create a program that would assist and reinforce the state's appellate system and early neutral evaluation and other alternative dispute resolution processes in the district courts.

In 2006, 2,344 cases were filed with the Court of Appeals, 245 of them related to family law.  The average length of time from filing of a family law case to release of an opinion is more than 280 days. 

It is estimated that 80 to 100 appellate family law cases could be resolved by mediation through the pilot program, rather than going through the lengthy and costly process of providing transcripts, briefs, and argument in the Court of Appeals. The program runs through August 2009.

The program will include all family law cases, which generally involve disputes over property division, custody, child support, or parenting time.  Limited exceptions can apply in special cases, such as those involving domestic violence.

Referral to mediation takes place after the statement of the case has been filed and the filing fee has been paid, but before the briefing stage and before litigants incur the substantial costs of ordering transcripts from the district court where the case originated.

"The project has been a remarkable example of how a court can fashion a positive initiative working with members of the bar and law professors who have contributed time on a pro bono basis," said Minnesota Court of Appeals Chief Judge Edward Toussaint.  The workgroup applied for and received a $30,000 grant from the State Justice Institute for technical assistance for training mediators, continuing design and development, and evaluation.  The evaluation is being assisted by a law school professor and a class of law students who developed the questionnaires for the participating litigants and lawyers.

A group of twelve mediators that includes retired judges and experienced family law practitioners have participated in appellate mediation training and have been instrumental in helping a subcommittee of the workgroup put together the mediation component of the program.  The mediators have agreed to serve on a sliding-scale fee basis, paid for by the parties.  The workgroup continues to meet on a regular basis to monitor the process and to discuss and respond to feedback from litigants, counsel, and the mediators.  In August 2009, the workgroup and the full Court of Appeals will formally evaluate the program and consider future changes. 

Chief Judge Toussaint summed up the court's response to the program thus far:  "We have been greatly encouraged by the enthusiasm that litigants and lawyers have expressed for the project and the willingness of all of the participants to work together to implement a program that promises a more satisfying approach to family law appeals.  Based on what we are seeing, this method has a great potential to more quickly arrive at a mutually acceptable solution that will likely serve these families well for a much longer period of time."