ANNAPOLIS – Officials say the Maryland Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission now in its infancy may be the key to dealing with the ever-increasing caseload in the state’s courts.
Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, who created the commission earlier this month, said the court system has always respected ADR, as it is known, as a way to resolve disputes between litigants. He hopes the commission will not only develop a practical, comprehensive plan to advance ADR statewide, but that it will help redistribute current caseloads.
“We want to improve the manner in which we dispense justice and how we deliver it,” Bell said. “ADR is an alternative means of processing claims and resolving them without or with little help from the courts.”
During the 1995 fiscal year, there were 262,000 new cases filed in the Circuit Courts and 2 million new cases filed in the District Courts. However, only 6.3 percent of civil cases and 8.1 percent of criminal cases were tried by the approximate 130 judges available.
The 1996 report of the Commission on the Future of Maryland Courts noted these numbers and concluded “that courts are not being used for their traditional purpose.” The report recommended using court-annexed dispute resolution programs not only to divert cases from court dockets, but possibly to provide a better solution for the parties.
Rachel Wohl, newly-appointed executive director of the ADR Commission, said there are already many such programs available in larger jurisdictions such as Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Baltimore County and Baltimore City. The commission needs to focus on how existing ADR programs are being run and then determine what system would be best for the state, she said.
“The commission will not do policy in a theoretical sense or produce some fancy report,” she said. “We want to develop a really practical implementation plan and then actually implement it.”
Wohl said once Bell appoints the remaining 20 to 30 people to the commission in December, it will begin work towards four specific goals:
* looking at the future of ADR in the court system.
* developing quality control for training mediators.
* creating a screening and referral process to determine what kinds of cases qualify for ADR.
* educating judges, lawyers and the public about the benefits of ADR.
Nancy Hirshman, director of the Mediation Center in the Anne Arundel County state’s attorney’s office, said it wasn’t until recently that dispute resolution was seen as an acceptable alternative to litigations.
“Resolution is a complement to the court system,” said Hirshman, who mediates about 1,000 cases a year. “It doesn’t replace it, but it serves as a constructive purpose and a benefit to the limited resources of the courts.”
She said ADR’s most important contribution is an appropriate forum to discuss disputes, noting the average court hearing lasts about 10 minutes compared to the average two-hour mediation session.
“All people just need to be heard,” Hirshman said. “They are usually more satisfied with the outcome and there is a greater chance that the conflict will not happen again.”
Hirshman recognizes ADR’s drawbacks. It may be another layer of bureaucracy. There may be no set criteria for how to conduct a mediation session. There may be an imbalance of power between the complainants. Yet she views the ADR Commission as a positive move for every district, circuit and juvenile court. “It is a step forward to turning the spotlight on what has been out there for a long time,” Hirshman said. -30-